A Profile in True Courage

Do not follow where the path may lead. Go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.”

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky should get the Nobel Peace Prize for unifying the West to fight for liberal democracy and combat a major symbol of autocracy, Russia. Let’s hope it’s not posthumously.

His bravado against overwhelming odds is a shining example of a battle for freedom and national dignity, a true mouse that roared, and refuses to surrender, often telling Western allies that salute him that he is a target of assassination.

“He is standing strong, but pleaded for more help,” Rep. Jim Hines, D-Conn., told The New York Times after hearing Zelensky on a Zoom call to about 300 members of Congress last week. “Planes, oil embargo, continued military aid.”

President Joe Biden’s administration announced Tuesday it will ban the import of Russian oil to the United States after bipartisan support pressuring him to make such a move. He has held off for fear it would increase the price of oil, which was $125 a barrel Tuesday. It hit a 30-year high of $130 Monday.

Zelensky, 44, repeatedly has badgered the democracies to send warplanes or impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine to help it defeat a huge enemy on its border, which has outmanned and outgunned Ukrainians who are bravely fighting against enormous odds to save their country. They reportedly have killed two Russian generals.

About 95 percent of the estimated 190,000 Russians sent to Ukraine’s borders are now in country, reports have said.

But the allies have rebutted Zelensky’s repeated demands, arguing that to supply old Soviet-era jet fighters from former Soviet bloc Eastern European countries or to have NATO aircraft patrol Ukrainian skies to keep the Russians grounded would risk a wider war against a major nuclear-armed adversary.

“That could lead to a full-fledged war in Europe,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Brussels recently. “President Biden has been clear that we are not going to get into a war with Russia.”

“Knowing that new strikes and casualties are inevitable, NATO deliberately decided not to close the sky over Ukraine,” Zelensky complained in apparent response in a video on his Telegram channel, The Washington Post reported. “Today the leadership of the alliance gave the green light for further bombing of Ukrainian cities and villages, refusing to make a no-fly zone.”

“They are preparing to bomb Odessa?” a visibly angry, upset Zelensky, in his now-customary wartime uniform of an army green T-shirt, like those worn by his soldiers defending their nation, said in a video Saturday. “They are preparing to bomb Odessa?” he repeated, sounding as if that should be improbable.

Odessa is a major Black Sea port and shipbuilding center in southern Ukraine, a prime Russian target. More than a million people live there. Putin seems determined to conquer all of Ukraine’s seashore. It snatched Crimea in 2014.

“Bombs against Odessa?” Zelensky shouted in Ukrainian. “Artillery against Odessa? Missiles against Odessa? It will be a war crime. It will be a historical crime.”

The video, with English subtitles, was part of Zelensky’s begging, pleading, coaxing, urging and wheedling his allies for their help to overcome Russia’s bid to conquer his country of 44 million in a battle for the life of Ukraine’s 30-year-old democracy.

Entry into the war by the 30-nation North Atlantic Treaty Organization, regardless of Ukraine’s lack of membership, also has been nixed on grounds it would mean escalating hostilities to the point at which tactical nuclear weapons, never mind continent-spanning missiles, could come into play. And what would China do?

“The terrible expectation is that the suffering we’ve already seen is likely to get worse before it gets better,” Blinken told reporters.

Indeed, the West already is preparing for a long Ukrainian insurgency and a government-in-exile, the Post reported. Zelensky is in Kyiv, the capital, and plans to stay. But the Post said he has discussed with U.S. officials possibly moving to Lviv to the west, closer to the Polish border.

Poland could become the base for a Ukrainian government-in-exile.

The allies certainly must be trying to determine how long Ukraine can hold out even as it sends thousands of anti-tank weapons and other war matériel to the beleaguered defenders. It has imposed major sanctions on Russia, but they haven’t deterred its advance into Ukraine.

About two million Ukrainians, mostly women and children, have fled their country, the biggest upheaval of refugees in Europe since World War II, the U.N. has said.

“In Ukraine, rivers of blood and tears are flowing,” Pope Francis said in his Sunday blessing. He urged Russian President Vladimir Putin to negotiate.

Zelensky has been defiant in the face of Russian refusals to agree to humanitarian ceasefires in Ukrainian cities throughout the country where people are desperate to leave because of reported increased artillery bombardments and the lack of food, water, electricity and heat.

“You should take to the streets!” Zelensky urged his people in a TV broadcast Saturday. “You should fight! It is necessary to go out and drive this evil out of our cities, from our land.”

Civilian men have heeded his call.

On the same day, he urged Congress, beyond his usual demands, to ban the import of Russian oil that he said would be “even more powerful” than sanctions against banks, according to the Times reported.

Mykhailo Podolyak, a Zelensky adviser, told the Post, “This war has become a people’s war for Ukrainians. We must win the war. There are no other options.”

Yes, there are.

A negotiated settlement would be one way. Perhaps Ukraine would agree to let Russia keep the territories it has won in the eastern Donbas region on the Russian border and most of the southern area with a corridor that would give Ukraine access to the Black Sea.

There doesn’t appear to be a way for Ukraine eventually to defeat Russia. An insurgency, even with money and weapons from the allies, would be a long, drawn out and costly campaign, possibly comparable to the destruction in Syria. Ending it with a negotiated settlement would save many lives, on both sides.

Or else Ukraine could wind up like the Alamo, a memorial to courage. It’s been made clear the cavalry isn’t coming.

Richard C. Gross, who covered war and peace in the Middle East and was foreign editor of United Press International, served as the opinion page editor of The Baltimore Sun.