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On the first anniversary of the Ukraine war, what have we learned?

Ukrainians, by their deeds and their words, have given us all a lesson in freedom. Americans clearly had something to learn.

Ukrainian servicemen sat atop armored personnel carriers in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022.VADIM GHIRDA/Associated Press

You know it’s history when it didn’t go as expected.

A year ago, the Biden administration was trying desperately to persuade the world that Russia was about to invade Ukraine, to general disbelief. If Russia did invade, experts assured us, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine would flee, and his country would quickly fall. Even the Biden administration accepted something like this; the conventional wisdom in Washington, Moscow, and, for that matter, Berlin, was much the same — Ukraine had no chance. And yet here we are, a year later. Zelensky is in Kyiv; his country is still fighting; and Ukrainians, by their deeds and their words, have given us all a lesson in freedom. Americans clearly had something to learn.


In a profound way, Ukrainians have gifted this year to people who care about freedom. Had events followed the course that most of us expected, it would have been a very different year. Had Zelensky fled and had Ukraine fallen, we would probably have conceded that democracy is weaker than authoritarianism and have expected the coming decades to be dominated by China, Russia, and the repression they exemplify and spread. Because Ukraine has resisted, we can tell ourselves, rightly so, that democracy is about not only freedom but strength. The Ukrainian state works because it represents its citizens. The Ukrainian army fights with the support of the people, organized in hundreds of small civil society groups. Ukrainian officers and soldiers were raised in an individualistic society, and they are good at making decisions for themselves.

More than that, though, Ukrainians have reminded us what freedom and democracy are about. They are shaking us awake from decades of lethargy and overconfidence, and reminding us that freedom and democracy depend upon us and what we do.

After communism came to an end in 1989 and the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, too many Americans convinced ourselves that history was over, that there were no alternatives to democracy, and that global capitalism would somehow do the work of freedom for us and for everyone, everywhere. Russia continues to demonstrate just how untrue that was: History went on and there were alternatives. One alternative was created by President Vladimir Putin of Russia: a dictatorship of fossil fuels and foreign wars, nostalgic for the past, spoiling the future.


Ukraine, struggling with the same post-Soviet legacy as Russia, proved something else: Freedom and democracy are possible but only when challenges are recognized, faced, and overcome. Time after time these past 30 years, Ukrainians have done what Russians have not: prevented any one figure from gaining total control, defending the outcome of free elections, while accepting that their country would benefit from friendly cooperation with its neighbors. None of this happens automatically; all of it depends upon taking responsibility and taking risks. When Zelensky chose to stay in Kyiv a year ago, he was doing (as he told me) what he felt he had to do. But no larger force made him do it. He did it as a person taking a risk and taking responsibility.

When Zelensky went to Washington, D.C., to address Congress in December, he spoke of the Battle of Saratoga during our Revolutionary War. He had in mind not only the American victory but the fact that it brought indispensable international support to the American cause. Today, Zelensky was trying to say, we Americans can be that indispensable international support. The Ukrainians are doing the fighting and the dying; the United States can do the fund-raising and the supplying.


Ukraine has given the Biden administration a chance for a new foreign policy, one that it has taken. It was unwise to think (as Democratic and Republican presidents before Donald Trump did) that the world must develop toward democracy; it was disastrous to turn the opposite way (as Trump did) and celebrate the dictators. The Biden administration has recognized that democracy and freedom are a cause rather than a trend and that the cause is best pursued by respecting and supporting allies. This is smart and effective.

What, then, to expect in the year to come? Last February should teach us caution. We are living in historic times, and some things will not go as we expect. My own expectation is that the Russian offensive will fail by spring and the Ukrainians will try an offensive of their own, aiming for a fourth major victory, after Kyiv, Kharkiv, and Kherson. The battlefield is of course an unpredictable place. When a war ends depends on politics and when leaders on one side can no longer bear the pressure. Especially in a dictatorship, that moment is hard to predict. But it always comes.

Russia has lost wars before, indeed quite a few of them, and it can lose this war too. When the victories are not forthcoming and the defeats translate into domestic political risk, expect Putin to change the subject. He could say something like, NATO tried to attack Russia, we stopped them in Ukraine, we have won a historic victory. Current Russian propaganda seems to be a preparation for just such a move. Whether that convinces Russians is Putin’s problem, although it must be said that Russians have shown a great capacity for believing their leader and his propagandists since this war began. If it does not work and Russians recognize that they have lost, then all the better. Historically, defeat in war has preceded Russian reform. In this century, law will have a chance in Russia only when empire falls.


Free people see history being made and seek to make it themselves. The Ukrainians have done the unexpected and offered us a second chance to understand freedom. If Americans have learned the lesson of the year that the Ukrainians have gained for us, they will seize that chance and act to help the Ukrainians win this war in the year to come.

Timothy Snyder is author of a half-dozen books on Russia and Ukraine, including “The Road to Unfreedom” and “Bloodlands.” He is a professor of history at Yale University and writes the newsletter “Thinking About … .”