Six months after war was unleashed on Ukraine by Russia, a video went viral of a little girl named Amelia singing the theme song from the movie Frozen “Let It Go” to about 30 people in an underground bunker. Above ground, Russian shelling caused utter devastation.

The bunker is austere and white, the ceiling is low, and there is just enough room to stand. The space is cramped and claustrophobia-inducing. A baby cries in the background. There are suitcases, mattresses, chairs, a pram, and shelves stocked with as much food and supplies as possible. With an expression of strong resolve, they’re huddled together in clusters, waiting until the day they will be free.

A year and a half later, thousands of frightened people across Ukraine are still sheltering in old war bunkers that many thought they’d never have to use again, but their hope for freedom remains strong.

Thousands of soldiers are now dead, thousands of children have been forcibly removed, and a year and a half later, all-out war on Ukraine continues. For the love of all that is holy, why? Because Putin wants Ukraine and Putin is not democratic.

Putin believes that Russia has its own culture which is always going to conflict with the West. He believes that Ukraine is not a country and never will be. This is a lie that ignores the centuries of their democratic history dating back to 1710 when Ukraine’s first constitution was signed to establish a democratic standard for separation of power between judicial, legislative, and executive branches.

Let it Go”, a Disney song about deliverance, freedom, and determination to be self-governed, independent, and to be appreciated for our differences is a strong metaphor for what Ukrainians are dealing with. Amelia is a little girl like any other, whose only desire is to be free and happy, to play safely with her friends and to dream of a bright future. Smiling through the bleakness, the people in the bunker watched the moving performance. One would think any sane ruler would just let it go, right? But this is just plain wrong, according to Vladimir Putin. He has made it abundantly clear that Russia does not do “free”.

In an interview with Julia Ioffe for PBS Frontline, the expert on Russia said that Putin has been seeking to topple an international rules-based order that has been in place since WW2. She said that it was clear that Russia was fighting a war with the US and Brussels in Ukraine.

“I think Vladimir Putin sees American talk of human rights, democracy, freedom as a cynical fig leaf, something that the US uses to cover itself as it cynically pursues its interests across the globe, as it pushes its agenda across the globe, much the same way that Moscow when it was first the capital of the Soviet Union and then Russia, did across the globe, invoked the cause of socialism in pursuing its geopolitical interests…it’s just a veneer, it’s just a facade to make these cold, cynical calculations more palatable to people around the globe and to the American public…”

It’s been a useful tactic for dictatorial governments to have an aggressive foreign policy. It eases feelings of shame of the Russian people related to corruption, poverty, and lack of economic opportunity within the country. It also justifies Putin’s actions in Ukraine. Foreign criticism becomes irrelevant when those foreigners are “just as bad as us”, or “getting away with war crimes”. Are the mistakes of the West enough to make us abandon all hope for democracy? Not for Ukrainians.

Most recent statistics from the National Democratic Institute show that Ukrainian support for democracy has reached record highs. “Ukrainians trust their president and their army, but desire to go beyond the military to build a strong and inclusive democracy.” In May 2023, 94% of Ukrainians reported that it is important that Ukraine becomes a fully functioning democracy, with no statistically significant differences across regions (West, Center/North, South, and East.)

On 17 March 2023, the International Criminal Court (ICC), after an investigation into war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide, issued two arrest warrants against Putin. This was the first ever warrant issued against the leader of a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. Another for Children’s Rights Commissioner, Maria Lvova-Belova.

According to the Prosecutor of the ICC, A. A. Khan KC, the charges against Putin and Lvova-Belova are based on reasonable grounds that the two are responsible for the “unlawful deportation and transfer of Ukrainian children from occupied areas of Ukraine to the Russian Federation, contrary to the Rome Statute”.

On 3 July 2023 Moscow reported that Russia had forcibly transferred an estimated 700,000 Ukrainian Children to Russia. Imagine seven football stadiums filled with children. Ukrainian teenagers, toddlers, and babies as young as four months old, have been forcibly taken to 43 camps located in Russia-annexed Crimea and across mainland Russia.

Ukraine’s commissioner for children’s rights says that only 307 have so far been returned.

There are many stories in the press about mothers whose teenage children came home from school excited about going on a “school camp”. They were bussed off to a “re-education” camp instead, where according to reports they were beaten, sexually assaulted, and forced to sing the Russian national anthem.

Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said that Russia does not recognise the jurisdiction of the ICC. Lvova-Belova spread false propaganda through Russian state media RIA Novosti: “It’s great that the international community has appreciated the work to help the children of our country, that we take them out, that we create good conditions for them, that we surround them with loving, caring people.”

It didn’t seem that way to little Amelia. Her resilience and contagious joy spread through the bunker when she sang a Western Disney song about freedom, which is a metaphor for strength and the desire of Ukrainians to be democratic. In that small container of safety, freedom, even if it is a veneer used by Western governments, is still central to the life of all human beings, and is a dream of its own worth fighting for until we do get it right. This is evidenced by the fierce battle of Ukrainian soldiers against Russian forces. Those soldiers, and all children the world over have the human right to dream of an ideal world, and why shouldn’t they?

Ioffe continued, “Putin doesn’t like liberal reformers. He doesn’t respect Russian Soviet leaders who had opened up Soviet society, both internally and to the world. He sees these leaders as naive and weak and giving in to basically what he sees as lies about the human condition. He believes that the Russian people can only be led with an iron first and through toughness.”

Ukrainians proved this to be false. What began as a corrupt system with security services and an archaic judicial system after 70 years of Soviet Union control, the country grew into a strong civil society during two pro-democracy street revolutions.

The sanctions implemented against Russia, post-invasion, were from a well-coordinated, unified coalition of NATO and Indo-Pacific allies. It was a wave of resistance that Putin did not expect, and it is taking its toll on Russians. People want to be free and democracy remains the foundation of Ukraine’s strength.

So, let it go, let it go, let it go. Let Ukraine go.