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What Could Go Right? Defending democracy in Ukraine

Plus, the US and Pakistan are making Supreme Court history, good news for those who have had and beaten Omicron, and more

Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas

This is our weekly newsletter, What Could Go Right? Sign up here to receive it in your inbox every Thursday at 6am ET. You can read past issues here.

Defending democracy in Ukraine
You have never seen this play before,” wrote Thomas Friedman in The New York Times last week, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “It is a raw, 18th-century-style land grab by a superpower—but in a 21st-century globalized world.” Welcome, he says, to World War Wired. 

Indeed, a torrent of news, government communications, and civilian videos are flooding social media. In this play, Google Maps identifies the Russian convoy as a “traffic jam” hours before the invasion is public knowledge (Google has since turned off live traffic data in Ukraine). An urban warfare director gives tips to civilian resistors— “think hard about where you will shoot from”—over Twitter. A Florida teenager famous for tracking Elon Musk starts tracking the private jets of Russian oligarchs; meanwhile, Musk himself donates Starlink satellite Internet to the besieged nation. Any one of us can go on TikTok or Instagram and watch a neighborhood molotov-cocktail-making party or missile strikes, almost in real time.

The flood of information has been fed by a flood of activity. Ukraine, of course, has been fighting Russia for a week. The West has imposed economic as well as personal sanctions, and sent materiel. Countries are banning Russian airplanes and ships. Several private companies, from Visa to Boeing to ExxonMobil, are pulling out of or blocking Russian business. Russian athletes can no longer participate in the World Cup or the Paralympics. There are protests all around the world, including in Russia, where over 7,000 people have been arrested for anti-war demonstrations. What effect such international opprobrium will have—and what will last for how long if Ukraine falls—remains to be seen. But as Kori Schake, foreign and defense policy director at the American Enterprise Institute, wrote in The Atlantic, “This is what free societies converging on an idea looks like. And the idea is this: Resist Putin’s evil.” 

Or as Foreign Policy reporter Keith Johnson quipped on Twitter: “Only a genius like Putin could get Germany to rearm, the Greens to support nukes, and Switzerland to waive neutrality for awhile.” And unite the United States, despite what you may have seen on television networks.

Around 80,000 protesters assembled in Prague’s central square on Sunday.

The percentages of Americans who think the invasion is unjustified and who look unfavorably upon Russian president Vladimir Putin are both high, around 75%. “It’s the first issue that seems to have brought—at least as far as we can tell—both the voters and the leaders of the two parties together,” journalist George Packer told The Progress Network (TPN) Member Yascha Mounk in a podcast interview. He goes on to warn against the kind of “corrosive rhetoric” that “puts the focus back on our divisions.” (Reason put it a little more bluntly: “stop trying to make Ukraine about your culture war.”)

Mounk also asks Packer, in the interview, to respond to a common reaction to the invasion, that this war is the end of the hopes of a future defined by freedom, tolerance, and nonviolence. That “the current crisis,” as TPN Member Fareed Zakaria summarized last week on his CNN show, “is proof that [the liberal international order] has collapsed, and that the democratic age was a brief fantasy.” 

“But is that kind of pessimism justified?” Zakaria asked. “I am more hopeful that within the terrible news of the last few days lie some powerful positive forces.”

It’s abundantly clear, for one, where the spirit of the Ukrainian people lies, and it is not with autocratic Russia. In the last week, the world has been captivated by their David-vs.-Goliath levels of resistance, on everything from deadly fighting to pettier screw yous. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is Jewish, has become a folk hero, itself its own story of progress.

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And in the midst of everything, Ukraine has applied for European Union (EU) inclusion. (Georgia says it will, too.) Former president of Ukraine Petro Poroshenko said it all when he said on CNN—after he pulled a Kalashnikov rifle onscreen, by the way, calling it his “assistant”—“We the Ukrainians are a free people with a great European future.” 

The liberal international order, meanwhile, “has more defenders than one might imagine,” said Zakaria. While we think the talk of whether the war will turn into a people’s or oligarch’s revolution in Russia is overblown, we are certainly sympathetic to the view, presented by Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari in The Guardian, that Putin has already lost the war of ideas. For those of us privileged enough to live in free societies, it is up to us now to make sure he continues to lose it.

As Friedman’s column on World War Wired was fundamentally about, the world these days is a fiendishly complex place. It often feels like understanding how all of the threads are woven together requires some as-of-yet uncreated PhD track. (Consider such complications as the racism being reported by Africans fleeing Ukraine and that Russia is a major player in both our dirty and clean energy futures.) Especially when deep complexity is matched by deep uncertainty and suffering, it’s tempting to throw responsibility for an answer outward, to ask that everything be made simple, easy. Many people do exactly this when they succumb to conspiracy theories or hate-based worldviews.

The only answer to where this is all going, though, is the one that is always true as events unfold: we don’t know yet. People have guesses, of course. What is also important to do now, from a TPN perspective, is to mentally fortify, to learn how to separate the guesses from what is definitively occurring. It’s tough in a news cycle like this one, where those guesses have wide latitude to balloon into our worst fears. We’re sure you’ve heard the talk of World War Three or nuclear meltdown.

Separating future fears from current events is not license to stick our heads in the sand and ignore potential risks, of course. It is a method of taking in the complexity, uncertainty, and suffering that needs to be taken in—without losing ourselves in it.

[Eds’ note: for those looking for action-based steps, we have a special links section below that includes a list of vetted places to donate, recommendations for healthily reading the news, and how to avoid falling prey to disinformation.]

Glass ceilings shatter in American and Pakistani Supreme Courts
On the last day of Black History Month, President Biden nominated Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court of the United States. If confirmed, she would be the first black female justice on the Supreme Court and would bring it to near gender parity. “To chalk her nomination up to identity politics run amok,” wrote TPN Member Theodore Johnson in The Bulwark, “is to miss the beauty of the American story that this moment encapsulates—a story of progress and of representation. As threats to our democracy emerge from all corners, in the eye of the storm, there is a glimpse of the American promise.” 

Also on Monday, the House passed a bill that would make lynching a hate crime. It is expected to pass the Senate.

In late January, Pakistan’s first female Supreme Court judge, Ayesha A. Malik, was sworn in. In her elevation, writes Aysha Imtiaz for TPN, “so too has Pakistan elevated traditional but harmful attitudes around women to the scrutiny of the nation’s highest legal power.” Justice Malik is known for outlawing the archaic two-finger test—in which the hymen of sexual assault survivors is declared intact or not—and even more recently pushing back against the idea that marital rape is an oxymoron. What her presence on the court means for Pakistan’s women here.

Before we go
In Afghanistan, women have been allowed to go back to Kabul University.

If you had Omicron, you probably aren’t going to catch its “cousin,” which is on the rise.

Below in the links section, more signs of vaccine progress in the US and Africa, France extends its abortion time limit, Israel bans “conversion therapy,” a global plastic pollution treaty is in the works, and more.


Regardless of personal politics, it has been a long time coming.

Justice Ayesha A. Malik Is Justice for Pakistan’s Women

Justice Ayesha A. Malik is sworn in as a Supreme Court judge in Pakistan

Pakistan has a sitting female Supreme Court judge for the first time in history. It is a win for more than the judiciary. | Read more 

Progress, Please

(Found good news? Tweet at us @progressntwrk or email.)

Other good stuff in the news

Ukraine: action steps

United States:

International:

TPN Member originals 

See the recent past anew with our long list of the week’s progress links.

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Until Next Time

Well played, Ukrainian tax office. 👇

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Emma Varvaloucas

Emma Varvaloucas is the Executive Director of The Progress Network. An editor and writer specializing in nonprofit media, she was formerly Executive Editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review and is the editor of two books from Wisdom Publications.