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It is happening again. A superpower is openly attacking a smaller, weaker nation.

Sadly, this is never surprising.  The list of times this has happened in history is longer than the Nile.  Russia stole the Crimea. China absorbed Tibet. Germany blitzed Poland. England colonized everywhere.

And the United States brutalized Vietnam, Nicaragua, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, and so many others.

Today, Russia is the oppressor, and the victim is Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is determined to end the complicated relationship established between Ukraine and Russia when the former Soviet empire disintegrated. In a slow and deliberate process, the Russian dictator is taking steps to absorb the fledgling nation.


Cold War superpowers divided the planet into allies and enemies decades ago, and both the United States and the Soviet Union are guilty of terrible atrocities. The U.S. committed them for the sake of “making the world safe for democracy.”

Just like Russia is doing now, America rendered the weaker states subservient to our economic agenda. Just like Russian oligarchs now, American oligarchs made billions at the expense of the citizens in those powerless countries. 

Back when Russia was the Soviet Union, it blatantly brutalized countries like Poland, Romania, Hungary, and Albania. Everywhere the Soviets extended their oppression they were successful — except Afghanistan.  Largey because of U.S. military equipment and economic aid, the Soviets relented and fled Afghanistan. We didn’t use any diplomacy: we  gave the Afghans weapons, and  they used the weapons to kill Soviets.

Putin first became emboldened to attack Ukraine back in 2014, when he successfully invaded and annexed the southern region of Ukraine (the Crimea) without much resistance from the rest of the world.  The U.S. and its allies feigned resistance, but the message was clear:  the U.S. was not going to risk a real confrontation with Putin.

From that point, Putin put Russian digital espionage into high gear.  Obama’s technology forces attempted to counter Russian hackers in 2014 to 2016, but from 2016 to 2021 Putin  succeeded where the Russians had failed before.

Putin was given an even greater gift when U.S. President Trump opened the door to unbridled Russian meddling around the globe.  When President Trump embraced Putin and his methods, Putin was given a green light to experiment in empire-building. 

 Which brings us to today’s war on Ukraine. Though this one country may be Putin’s target, he also wants to see how far he can go before the rest of the world intervenes directly. He is pressing the West to decide whether it continues to play Cold War games, or stops a bully.

I know it’s hard to swallow that the U.S. is as guilty of atrocities as Russia and the Soviet Union over the last 75 years.  But Russia’s attack in Ukraine paints us into a corner and crystalizes our moral dilemma: are we a bully, or a savior? We can’t keep being both – and furthermore, we first have to accept the reality of our bullying history.   

This is why today’s debate over school curriculum is so important. For years, we’ve miseducated our youth in school, shielding them from knowing more about our own bullying past. We fantasize that we can be the “good guys” while pounding weaker nations into dust.

We can’t do this anymore. In  Mohandas Gandhi’s words, “Remember that all through history, there have been tyrants and murderers, and for a time, they seem invincible.  But in the end, they always fall. Always.”

Kent Mick head shot
Author Kent Mick is an advanced placement history teacher at Grinnell High School, a parent, and member of a band called The Jury.