A Ukrainian serviceman stands guard outside the central railway station...

A Ukrainian serviceman stands guard outside the central railway station on Tuesday in Kyiv, Ukraine.  Credit: Getty Images/Anastasia Vlasova

Ukrainians are fighting back against Russia's invasion more effectively than expected but still face a grim prognosis against a far stronger enemy. But one thing is already clear: This David-and-Goliath clash has become an extraordinary moment for pro-freedom solidarity.

The reaction around the world has included not only an outpouring of support for Ukraine and virtually unanimous condemnation of Vladimir Putin’s war of aggression, but also more practical steps — from humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine and its defenders to crippling sanctions designed to turn Russia into a pariah state with a crippled economy.

Dizzying political shifts have happened overnight. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has said that Germany will increase its defense spending, abandon the Nord Stream 2 pipeline built to facilitate delivery of Russian natural gas, and generally move to end its energy dependence on Russia. Sweden and Finland are talking about joining NATO — an ironic twist, since NATO enlargement was one of the Putin gripes used to justify this war. Meanwhile, Ukraine seems certain to be fast-tracked for European Union membership.

To be sure, not all the responses have been successful. An offer to deliver fighter jets from Poland to Ukraine appears in doubt due to concerns that such a step would involve NATO, of which Poland is a member, in a direct military conflict with Russia. No one wants to trigger World War III. But all in all, the speed, coordination, and decisiveness of the response have been astonishing.

As the crisis in Ukraine began, there was a fear that it was the final death knell of hopes for the triumph of liberal democracy after the collapse of the Soviet Union and its empire in 1991. Many predicted that the liberal order was dying and giving way to a much more traditional principle: Might makes right.

The past decade has not been good for freedom, with authoritarianism tightening its grip on a number of countries, as Putin has demonstrated, and with liberal democracies beset by cultural and political polarization, grievance and self-doubt. Our own country is a stark example. For four years, the United States was led by a president openly dismissive of any moral distinction between democracies and dictatorships. Today, far too many Americans on both the left and the right see liberal democracy as little more than a facade for oppressive and malevolent forces. In a bizarre convergence, both Fox News host Tucker Carlson and the Democratic Socialists of America blame U.S. imperialism for provoking Putin into invading Ukraine.

Putin’s attack is a potent reminder of the difference between democracy and dictatorship and of the dangers of a might-makes-right mentality. It has also provided a moving example of a people and a leader willing to fight for freedom and for Ukraine's aspirations toward Western-style democracy and integration into Europe. It has united the free world — a phrase that was in danger of losing its meaning — against freedom’s enemies, in ways that extend beyond the current crisis: The prime minister of Japan has spoken about the need to ensure Taiwan’s defense against a possible takeover attempt by China.

People look at the gutted remains of Russian military vehicles...

People look at the gutted remains of Russian military vehicles on a road in the town of Bucha, close to the capital Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, March 1, 2022. Russia on Tuesday stepped up shelling of Kharkiv, Ukraine's second-largest city, pounding civilian targets there. Casualties mounted and reports emerged that more than 70 Ukrainian soldiers were killed after Russian artillery recently hit a military base in Okhtyrka, a city between Kharkiv and Kyiv, the capital. (AP Photo/Serhii Nuzhnenko) Credit: AP/Serhii Nuzhnenko

Time will tell whether this is the revival of the democratic dream or a feel-good moment of nostalgia for the moral certainties of times past. But at least for the moment, the free world is back, with Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelenskyy as its moral leader.

Opinions expressed by Cathy Young, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, are her own.

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