For two weeks, Russian forces have ravaged the people of Ukraine, brazenly and indiscriminately attacking civilians fleeing for the safety of their families and citizens fighting for the sovereignty of their democracy.
My heart breaks for them. I grieve for the hundreds, soon to be thousands, slain—for the untold millions whose lives have been forever upended by this senseless war. I worry for our world, pushed to the brink in so many ways and places. I fear, to paraphrase the poet, W.B. Yeats, that, at some point, the center cannot hold.
The fact is, President Vladimir Putin’s malevolent invasion of Ukraine and subversion of its democratic government violates international law. It disregards the conscience, the calls, and the condemnation of the international community.
Moreover, Putin’s actions—his assault on the Ukrainian people’s liberties, freedoms, and their republic itself—are not new to history. One would be hard pressed not to notice the parallels to 1938 and 1939, when Hitler’s armies marched on Czechoslovakia and Poland, sparking the last great global conflagration.
Already, Putin’s campaign of terror has created a refugee crisis of epic proportions—yet another global crisis that exposes and exacerbates inequalities of all kinds, including gender-based exploitation and anti-Black/Brown racism. This cataclysm comes at a moment when the global community desperately needs to reimagine recovery and rebuild more equitably, after two full years of COVID-19, throwing us off balance, all over again. And given the scale of this calamity, it, inevitably, will draw attention and resources away from other humanitarian crises and urgent intersecting issues—that pandemic of pandemics; of caste, and plague, and environmental catastrophe.
More broadly, beyond the borderlands between east and west, we are confronted anew with the defining conflict of our time: The generational contest between authoritarian ideology and democratic values, the world over. Ukraine may be the latest, most violently contested battleground, but it is hardly the only one.
One recent analysis from Freedom House shows that, globally, authoritarianism has been gaining and democracy losing ground for 16 consecutive years. Another from Sweden’s V-Dem Institute illustrates that 70% of the world’s people—some 5.4 billion human beings—now live in dictatorships. Put differently, the number of people living in liberal democracies has contracted to 1989, Cold-War-era levels.
In Russia, Putin has tightened his grip on power for two decades, but he and his kleptocracy are only one element of a gathering authoritarian axis comprised not only of state actors, but autocrats across and within many states. Like others, he has governed with a degree of impunity—unjustly, wantonly, without consequence.
We see it everywhere. Autocrats (and wannabe autocrats, at home and abroad) denounce and discredit both journalism and history—both journalists and historians—promoting, in their place, state-sanctioned propaganda and mythology. They disrupt and distort the free flow of information, proclaiming one totalitarian truth that belies basic facts, let alone the nuance and complexity of the past.
This new kind of authoritarian axis erodes our global institutions. It denigrates the rule of law. It undermines confidence in fair elections, self-government, and civil society. It embezzles from its own peoples—perpetuating rampant corruption.
In the case of Russia, the Ford Foundation has witnessed this up close and in person. In 2008, we closed our Moscow office, in part due to government interference and corruption. Like others, we saw then what the world sees now: Putin did not, and does not, share the west’s—and the Russian people’s—ambitions for a new Russia following the dissolution of the Soviet Union.
Today, as the world inches closer to the precipice, we all are asking of ourselves and each other: What can we do? And what can we do now?
For starters, I’m thinking of the old benediction: Let’s do all the good we can, for all the people we can, in all the ways we can.
Everyone can give—whether to CARE, the Ukrainian Women’s Fund, the Committee to Protect Journalists, the International Rescue Committee (IRC), or other essential civil society organizations like the Urgent Action Fund stepping into the breach.
I’ve been energized, too, by the creativity and generosity of many private sector leaders. Businesses across industries—from food to pharmaceuticals, cosmetics to travel—are putting aside profits to offer free housing to refugees, transport medical supplies and equipment, and get food, blankets, and other essentials to Ukrainians in need.
And, of course, the arts community exhilarates and emboldens, as ever. I was moved by Yo-Yo Ma’s impromptu performance in front of the Russian Embassy on Monday afternoon. “We all have to do something,” he said. Indeed.
For our part, philanthropy can and should anticipate what and where ongoing needs will be—and step in preemptively to address them. At Ford, so far, we have committed $1 million to the IRC’s Ukraine Emergency Response Fund. We also are contributing $1 million to the Open Society Foundations’ Ukraine Democracy Fund, which will bolster the work of many civil society organizations and demand accountability through the documentation of war crimes.
And at home in the United States, this crisis calls out for America to rise to the challenge and realize our promise, not just despite our missteps in recent years, but because of them. The world needs us to serve as a beacon for human dignity and human rights—for the tired, for the tempest-tost, for all those yearning to breathe free.
I am heartened, in this vein, by New York Governor Kathy Hochul’s bold proclamation welcoming Ukrainian refugees in New York City—home of the largest Ukrainian population outside of Ukraine itself. As a nation, we must prepare to do more, better, and faster: to resettle refugees in the U.S. at an accelerated pace; to use every one of the 125,000 slots that President Biden pledged to make available for refugee resettlement (and more if necessary); to ensure that we welcome newcomers to our shores with compassion, after they experienced the unimaginable.
Ultimately, isolationism at the expense of cooperation is a self-fulfilling prophecy. That tired, “America First” dogma ignores our interdependence, tearing at that web of mutuality in which we all are bound together.
Each of us, in our own ways, must refuel that lamp beside the golden door—not because we always, in every instance, have kept it perfectly, but because we have the strength and means and obligation to brighten its glow now.
And, at the same time, we must redouble our commitment to multilateral institutions and their work; our support to Poland, Hungary, Romania, Moldova, and other nations now literally on the frontlines; to protecting and promoting civil society in nations which, themselves, are theaters in the conflict between authoritarianism and democratic values.
Like all of you, I am watching with admiration and reverence as President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people fight valiantly to defend their homes, their communities, their country, and their democratic aspirations. I am moved by their resilience, courage, and strength, but also their kindness, empathy, and grace.
Let us honor their sacrifice with our own—for them and for the values we share. As we have before, time and again, let us meet this challenge with resolve, with action, and with enduring hope for justice and for peace.