Running away from menace is a natural human instinct. For the past two years, as the war in Ukraine has raged on, apologists for Putin have repeatedly said that Ukraine invited trouble onto itself by having the audacity to express interest in joining NATO. They wholeheartedly agree with Putin’s argument that if Ukraine were to join the alliance, it would jeopardize Russia’s security. Never mind the fact that Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, three countries that border Russia, have all been NATO members since 2004 and nothing has happened to Russia.

There was never any indication from anywhere that any NATO member had any interest in attacking Russia. But even if someone had any such designs on Moscow, wouldn’t it be arrogant for Putin to demand that Ukraine serve as a buffer between Russia and NATO? When and where did the sovereign nation of Ukraine sign up to serve as a shield for Russia?

The thing we hear over and over from the apologists is that America did not allow the Soviet Union to station nuclear weapons in Cuba in 1962, and therefore NATO should not be on Russia’s doorstep either. No matter how much the world has changed since certain events occurred, these people remain stuck in history. And they suffer from America-does-it-too syndrome. Whenever some autocrat somewhere perpetrates some evil act, their apologists try their hardest to find some wrong that America did in the past and use it to justify their favorite despot’s current misdeeds. That is such an unprincipled way of looking at the world.

The announcement on Friday that the prominent Russian opposition leader, Alexei Navalny, had died inside a penal colony in Siberia at the age of 47, should help clarify for the Putin apologists what Ukraine has been fighting for. That is, if that crowd will ever be open to fact-based reasoning. Ukrainians have always known what Putin is capable of, and they are willing to fight till the last man to make sure they don’t ever have to live under his thumb. If he can do this to his compatriot Navalny, the Ukrainians can only imagine the cruel treatment he would subject them to if he were to have total control over their lives.

I lived under a tyrannical regime in Ghana for about three years in my early twenties. It was a terrifying period, with government operatives carrying out extrajudicial killings. Everyone, from businesspeople to academics, hunkered down. Even for a young, then apolitical person like me, the tension that hung in the air constantly was quite palpable.

That was the environment I left in 1985 to attend college in the Soviet Union. I sensed almost immediately after I arrived in Moscow that I had simply changed places. The Soviets lived in fear as much as Ghanaians did then. Quite fortunately for me, as a young foreign student, I was of no interest to the Soviet political establishment so I could breathe free most of the time. But my Soviet classmates and the many friends I had in the country were not so lucky. As they went about their daily lives, I watched them with great sympathy because of my prior life under despotic rule.

Unsurprisingly, the free and open nature of American society instantly appealed to me when I arrived here in early 1992. Within a couple of years, I had become convinced that I wanted America to be my permanent home. I renounced my Ghanaian citizenship and became an American, and have never looked back.

Judging by the distance between Ghana and the U.S., the step I took was a lot more drastic than anything the Ukrainians are trying to do today. They live right on NATO’s doorstep. For over two decades, they have watched with envy as their neighbors, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, and the Baltic states, who have broken free of Russian domination, have enjoyed freedom and prosperity. How could anyone justify this attempt by an external power to deny Ukrainians the chance to live in freedom?

From the comfort of their ivory towers, some American academics from the realist school have used the sphere-of-influence argument to express sympathy for Putin’s actions. Because they were born in a free country and are lucky to have never suffered any forms of oppression, it is not too surprising to see them hold this worldview. What is shocking to me is the large number of Africans who cheer on what Russia is doing in Ukraine. They openly subscribe to the notion that major powers have some entitlement to determine the destiny of everyone in their neighborhoods.

That is rather bizarre reasoning. Pretty much every African lives or grew up in a country that was once colonized by an external power. The Africans who loudly blame Ukraine for precipitating the war happen to be the same people who attribute everything that currently ails their continent to colonialism. Even when some ailment clearly results from their own actions today, these people engage in all kinds of self-contortions to find ways to pin the blame on some white ghost.

By their weird logic, perhaps some of these Africans should be asked whether they think that the British, French, Belgians, Portuguese and other European powers that colonized nations on the continent were also operating under the sphere-of-influence theory. If what entitles a nation to such a sphere is military power, then proximity shouldn’t really matter. Any powerful nation could just go round the world and conquer weaker ones and plunder their resources at will.

Since Navalny’s death, many people, including me, have wondered why he put himself in such mortal danger by returning to Russia from Germany three years ago. As I thought about it, it occurred to me that the same could indeed have been asked about Martin Luther King Jr. and Medgar Evers. Those two Black American civil rights icons could have stayed passive, just as most of us often do, to save their skins. But at times some people feel that they need to pay the ultimate price in order to bring to view the sheer evil in this world that the rest of us fail to see because we are in deep slumber.

May the sacrifice of the brave and noble Alexei Navalny do for ordinary Russians what that of Dr. King and Medgar Evers did for Black Americans—and indeed Americans generally. And may Ukraine win its fight against this giant menace.