It is no longer a question of if or when Vladimir Putin will order Russia’s military to invade Ukraine. Now it is a question of what kind of world will we all inhabit once the shelling and gunfire end — and how we define strength — through military might and snubbing the rule of law, or the hard work of diplomacy and democracy-building.

In the early hours of Thursday morning, air-raid sirens went off in cities across Ukraine — in the capital, Kyiv, in Odessa, and in Lviv, which is less than 50 miles from the Polish border, on the country’s western edge. Putin declared a “special military operation” under the pretense of protecting Russian nationals from what he called a “genocide,” an allegation that has been backed with no evidence.

Just days earlier, after months of threats and massive Russian military deployments to the Ukrainian border, Putin declared parts of Ukraine — Luhansk and Donetsk — independent people’s republics. In a speech Monday, the Russian leader made clear that the real reason for his aggression is not a concern about human rights for Russians or NATO expansion to the east. What Putin cares about is correcting what he perceives as a historic wrong that separated Ukraine from Russia. Putin wants to make Russia great again.

The whole world should be watching.

» READ MORE: Why Putin’s Ukraine aggression will change the world: An explainer on how we got here | Trudy Rubin

It is rare for this editorial board to comment on matters of foreign policy. But the Russian war in Ukraine is not simply a faraway dispute between two parties in a continent across the Atlantic Ocean. This war is an affront to democracy, humanity, and the very concept of the sovereignty of nations. It is an unfolding humanitarian catastrophe that undoubtedly will claim the lives of many, many Ukrainians and Russians alike. It is a center of gravity that risks bringing more countries into active warfare. It is a conflict that is going to impact Americans’ lives — most immediately at the gasoline pump.

But what may be most concerning is that what’s happening in Ukraine is the latest manifestation of a global trend toward authoritarianism — a trend to which neither the United States nor Pennsylvania is immune.

In what seems to be a growing segment of the American political establishment, Putin’s behavior is being regarded as a blueprint for leadership. That is a scary development. It is not by chance that many of the same people who so readily criticize President Joe Biden’s response to Russia are often those who still don’t accept the result of the 2020 U.S. presidential elections, and who consider the insurrection of Jan. 6, 2021, “legitimate political discourse.” Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, a potential Republican presidential hopeful, showed what this kind of salivating over a strongman looks like. Said Pompeo of Putin: “He knows how to use power. We should respect that.”

» READ MORE: Russian grab of Belarus is the role model for Putin’s plans for Ukraine | Trudy Rubin

In addition, some Republicans have been cynically using the pain of the people of Ukraine to try to frame Biden as weak — even as it is remains unclear what they would have wanted Biden to do.

It is easy for Putin to sit in a palace far away from the front and send someone else’s child to war — all while knowing he won’t answer for his actions at the ballot box. Biden has made it clear he is not interested in U.S. troops fighting their Russian counterparts in Ukraine — and that should remain the goal.

Instead of gazing admiringly at Putin, the strength that we should value as a society is one that is derived from a commitment to democracy, human rights, and collective pursuit of peaceful decision-making. It’s undeniable that the United States, with its many ills domestically and a track record of harmful intrusions abroad, is an imperfect messenger for this vision. But those imperfections should not serve to embolden Russia — and standing united as a nation to Putin’s aggression need not mean beating the drums of war.

We will all feel the effects of the war in Ukraine at home, but perhaps few more so than our neighbors of Ukrainian and Russian descent in the U.S. whose family members are at grave risk.

The Inquirer Editorial Board

What does real strength look like? In a speech delivered to the U.N. Security Council on Tuesday, Kenyan U.N. Ambassador Martin Kimani condemned Russia’s aggression. From the vantage point of a representative of a country whose borders were drawn by European colonial powers (an experience shared by many African nations), Kimani warned against looking “ever backward into history with a dangerous nostalgia” and instead urged that we “look forward to a greatness none of our many nations and peoples had ever known.”

That vision is strength. The world should heed Kimani’s advice when responding to Putin. Here at home, we are experiencing our own version of “dangerous nostalgia” in American politics today.

We will all feel the effects of the war in Ukraine at home, but perhaps few more so than our neighbors of Ukrainian and Russian descent in the United States whose family members are at grave risk. It will be tempting to push Biden and his administration toward a jingoistic response, and some forces are already trying.

Instead, the United States has an opportunity to show strength in its belief that democracy, diplomacy, and the international rule of law can and will prevail — and that work starts at home.