By Nataliya Anon
Special to The Examiner
For the past three weeks, as I’ve watched the West sacrifice Ukraine at the altar of freedom, I’ve been thinking a lot about leadership. At Stanford University, my alma mater, the concept was woven into nearly every syllabus, as professors prepared my classmates and me for future roles as leaders in the United States and beyond.
As we emerged from our academic cocoon, leadership remained a common buzzword. But how much substance lies behind this word? How many true leaders can we point to today, particularly in the realm of politics?
In the past weeks, we have seen true leadership emerge from Ukraine. The world has marveled at the heroism of President Volodymyr Zelensky, who day after day models courage, optimism and strength in his impossible fight. We’ve also seen countless examples of leadership from ordinary Ukrainians: People, who just a few weeks ago spent their days as office workers, software developers or graphic artists, are now joining the fight for Ukraine’s freedom. Some take up arms. Others coordinate complex logistical operations to import needed supplies from across the globe. Some grab a truck and drive under the bombs to deliver humanitarian aid and evacuate families, going to hotspots where international organizations refuse to go. Others raise millions of dollars in funds, share essential information or organize rallies.
But even as Ukrainians of all stripes step up to lead, we have seen an epic failure of leadership worldwide — from presidents and prime ministers and members of congress in the world’s leading democracies. In other words, from the very people we should expect to lead.
One of the cornerstone principles of leadership is integrity. Leadership courses universally highlight the importance of core values — knowing what is right and what is wrong and acting accordingly. The U.S., as well as the multinational organizations of which it is a member (NATO, the UN and many more), loudly preach values such as freedom, democracy, human rights and the responsibility to care for the vulnerable.
Their actions in Ukraine, however, go against all of these espoused values. Even as they loudly condemn the atrocities committed by the Russian army, no leader is taking steps to stop them. As I write this, the people of Mariupol, a city of 400,000, have been starving to death for nearly two weeks. There is no heat, no water, no food, no way out. Every single day, people line up to evacuate — and every single day, the Russian army blocks their path and forbids humanitarian aid to enter the city.
How can any politician sleep at night knowing that he or she is standing by and allows this to happen? How can any constituent continue to trust such politicians, for whom children’s lives are meaningless?
U.S. policies in Ukraine are not only immoral, they are shamefully reactive — literally, the opposite of leadership. The U.S. and NATO wait for Vladimir Putin to set the terms and play by his rules. They did this in 2014, when Putin illegally annexed Crimea and started a war in Ukraine’s East. They did it over the last few months, as Putin made clear preparations to invade. And they are doing it now, as war rages and thousands die.
Every single decision is made under the cloud of fear, with one aim — not to upset Putin, because he has nuclear weapons. It is interesting that, although the U.S. also has nuclear weapons, Putin is not tiptoeing around in fear of retaliation. In contrast, the Russian dictator has loudly, proudly declared his twisted core values and is proactively pursuing his country’s interests.
U.S. leaders claim that by shirking their responsibility to step in and protect Ukraine, they are avoiding a third world war. But Putin does not play by the rules. In his mind, he is already fighting the United States; Ukraine, which he considers a U.S. puppet, is his current battleground. It is obvious to every Ukrainian that Putin will not stop at Ukraine. From the beginning, he’s been out to rebuild an empire; the economic sanctions imposed by the West only make him angrier and more determined.
The U.S. and NATO refuse to implement the no-fly zone that Ukraine needs to have any chance to withstand invasion from a vastly larger, more powerful foe. But should Putin invade NATO countries, they will be forced to intervene. If confrontation is inevitable, why wait?
Some leading U.S. foreign policy experts are delaying this reckoning with irresponsible, inaccurate praise of the disastrous policy in Ukraine. Recent comments by Francis Fukuyama and Michael McFaul — professors from my alma mater, Stanford — are prime examples.
Fukuyama approves of the Biden administration’s decisions not to declare a no-fly zone or transfer Polish MiGs fighter jets to Ukraine. “It is much better to have the Ukrainians defeat the Russians on their own,” he said. Never mind that the Ukrainians are losing the war and cannot defeat the Russians on their own. Fukuyama also stated that fighter jets “would not add much to Ukrainian capabilities,” in direct contradiction of statements from Ukraine’s own military leaders.
Fukuyama is also silent on the horrifying and increasingly likely risk of a chemical or nuclear attack. He’s noticed that Putin has committed the bulk of his military to the war, and this military is hanging on by a thread. But he does not understand that these very failures may lead a desperate Putin to double down. If Putin has no soldiers, many Ukrainians and East Europeans believe he will use chemical agents or nuclear bombs.
Michael McFaul has made multiple statements in support of Ukraine. But he, too, refuses to entertain the idea of a no-fly zone, fearing its escalatory potential. I suppose this isn’t surprising for someone who pushed a policy of appeasing Putin during his tenure as the U.S. ambassador to Russia during the Obama administration.
McFaul said in a Feb. 27 Twitter comment that he is confident about Ukraine’s eventual victory — he even believes that failure in Ukraine will topple Putin’s regime. But without the no-fly zone that McFaul so ardently opposes, these optimistic predictions have no chance of coming true. Rather, Ukraine will be devastated by years of war and millions of casualties, with most major cities turned to rubble.
Many years from now, the political leaders who did not act to stop Putin and the foreign policy experts who encouraged them will look back with shame on their words and actions. Their positions will stain their reputations — unless our leaders change tack and decide to actually lead and take action to end the genocide on Ukrainian soil.
Nataliya Anon is CEO of Svitla Systems, Inc. and co-founder of nonprofit Hromada, which is collecting funds to provide relief for Ukrainians affected by the Russian invasion.