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March 7, 2022

Fight or Flight

Volodymyr Zelensky’s decision to lead his people stands in stark contrast to other “leaders.”

Having spent most of 2021 in Ukraine working with Ukrainian security forces, I’ve monitored developments over the last several weeks with more than a passing interest. I am not surprised that the Ukrainian security services have responded ably to the invasion. Although the Ukraine-Russia conflict is a relatively new development in most Westerners’ minds, the Ukrainian military has been actively fighting the Russians and their proxies since 2014. Units and leaders have been learning, adapting, and training diligently to prepare for what they knew was coming next. But I am a bit surprised by the way the entire nation (and beyond) has rallied to the cause.

Like many observers, I’ve been inspired by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. His speech to the Munich Security Conference was clear, substantive, and persuasive, and his leadership since the invasion began has been Churchillian. It’s early for polling to capture the full extent of his popularity, but if favorable social media posts are any indication, he would be a competitive candidate in many Western elections.

This, of course, contrasts with most of his Western counterparts. Vice President Kamala Harris’s speech to the Munich conference was described by one observer as a meaningless “word salad.” The only recourse Joe “Minor Incursions” Biden — the ostensible uber-competent “pro” with decades of foreign policy experience — was willing to discuss prior to the invasion was vague promises of undefined sanctions. But as soon as the invasion was underway, he did a 180 and claimed no one really expected sanctions to deter Russian aggression. With such halfhearted belief in his own proposals, it’s no wonder Biden’s European counterparts were reluctant to go along, and no wonder Vladimir Putin thought he was playing a winning hand.

That is until Zelensky did what real leaders do: persuaded people to take actions they wouldn’t have opted for otherwise. Following what was described as an impassioned appeal from Zelensky during a teleconference last Thursday night, European leaders acted decisively and swiftly, implementing even stronger responses than most pundits thought possible — imposing stiffer-than-expected sanctions, closing airspace, sending lethal aid to Ukraine, increasing defense budgets … and leaving the U.S. playing catch-up.

Even now, more than a week into the fight, the Biden administration continues to send mixed signals by carving out energy-related exceptions to Russia’s removal from the SWIFT bank messaging system, which was originally touted as the most drastic and meaningful punishment that could be imposed. It’s almost as if Biden is more concerned about the impact (additional) increases in energy prices would have on his horrible polling than on how the sanctions would influence Putin’s decision-making. Barack Obama gave us “leadership from behind.” Biden represents whatever the opposite of leadership is.

Zelensky’s actions are also worth contrasting with another leader-in-name-only: Afghanistan’s Ashraf Ghani. Given a much less tenuous situation, Ghani chose the flight response in August and, with a lot of help from Biden, doomed his country to a chaotic collapse. It’s hard to argue the counterfactual — we simply don’t know what would have transpired had Ghani chosen not to flee — but it’s plausible to assume that a Zelensky-esque stand would have stiffened the spine of Afghan security forces protecting Kabul at least enough to negotiate a settlement and arrange for the orderly departure of diplomats and Afghan allies. Instead, he made a rash decision to put his own welfare ahead of his citizens’ and started an avalanche that ultimately resulted in the deaths of 13 American servicemen and hundreds of Afghans.

Zelensky’s and Ghani’s responses when faced with fight-or-flight situations demonstrate the impact one man can have on how history turns. The choices those individuals made set in motion a sequence of events that had a much broader impact than anyone could have predicted at the time. History will regard Zelensky as a hero and Ghani as a coward. It wouldn’t be fair to call Biden a coward, and he likely won’t be judged on any one particular decision, but if the remainder of his term is anything like his first year, “failure” may come to be the term most associated with Uncle Joe.

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