These are our fears as the world watches Russia's invasion of Ukraine

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The war in Ukraine has escalated with each hour since Russian President Vladamir Putin first invaded earlier this week.

After days of fighting, the combat reached the Ukrainian capital city of Kyiv, where Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged residents to seek shelter and encouraged his troops to hold the line against an aggressive Russian advance.

Is with that backdrop of military action and dread that the USA TODAY Opinion team discussed what fears we have as we join the rest of the world in watching history unfold while one nation battles for its sovereignty and another tries to impose its will.

'I have only one way out': Life in Ukraine as Russian forces close in on Kyiv

Wrestling with disinformation

There’s unavoidable helplessness in moments like this. An invasion – a war – is no longer an abstraction. We see it unfold in real-time, from our phones or televisions or laptops. We see the flames rise after bombs hit and see high-resolution images of bloodied Ukrainians.

There’s no mystery about what’s happening here. It’s criminal. It’s unprovoked. It’s Vladimir Putin’s naked aggression, draped in the preposterous lies and disinformation of an authoritarian state.

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And that’s what scares me. Listen to what Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, directed at the people of Russia: “The Ukraine on your news and Ukraine in real life are two completely different countries – and the main difference is ours is real. You are told that we are Nazis. How could a people that lost more than 8 million people in the fight against Nazism support Nazism?”

Here in America, we are wrestling with disinformation, with political leaders who shamelessly peddle outright fiction. What we’re seeing unfold in Ukraine is, in part, what happens when people who lie as easily as they breathe gain power and want more.

As we watch, helplessly, that undercurrent should steel our resolve to hold fast to facts. And to shun the opportunists who recklessly run them down.

Rex Huppke, USA TODAY Opinion columnist

A more divided America

USA TODAY News · Jaden Amos, of USA TODAY Opinion, talks about Russia's invasion of Ukraine

A unified America is some sort of a mythical idea to me. I’m 22, so I’ve never experienced an America that can agree on anything.

When people reminisce about a less partisan U.S. they often talk about after 9/11 where Americans hung up flags and comforted each other through fear. I was 2, so I have no memory of that. My perception of America is a fractured one full of infighting and hate. And I also know that wasn’t even the case for many Muslim Americans – or people assumed to be Muslim.

The Ukraine I love: Hope is not a plan but it's all I have for the Ukraine I hold in my heart

This is a chance for us to get behind a common cause and stand against Vladimir Putin – together. But I’m afraid this won’t happen, leaving our country divided. This could lead to an even scarier reality for Americans, Europeans and the world.

Jaden Amos, digital producer

A lopsided cascading crisis

At the height of the Cold War, our nuclear arms race reached a sort of stalemate through mutually assured destruction. They knew about our nukes, and we knew about theirs – a powerful deterrent that cut both ways.

But our world is far more interconnected today than it was 30 years ago, so I worry this current conflict could devolve in complicated and unexpected ways, making the nuclear standoff of my parents' generation look like a straightforward arm-wrestling match between two burly world leaders.

How to stop it: Sanctions aren't enough against Russia, Putin. Stop buying oil, gas to protect Ukraine.

These days, the battlefield is omnipresent, thanks to the internet, and Russia has repeatedly demonstrated its ability and willingness to wage cyberwar. Hackers can create simple disruptions that cascade into deadly disasters without ever setting foot on enemy soil. Civilians everywhere are at risk.

I figure our global society is so interwoven that, whatever happens, we can't expect to be shielded from the fallout.

– Steven Porter, assistant opinion editor

An unwinnable conflict

Perhaps the better question would be: In this quickly escalating conflict, proliferated by an unscrupulous dictator without boundaries, is there anything not to be afraid of? The answer to that would be, no.

I fear for Russian protesters who have been brave enough to step out on principle knowing that their arrests were inevitable and their treatment while incarcerated would be unpredictable. As a Black journalist who has closely covered the Black Lives Matter movement, I can't help but think about U.S. demonstrators here who have been met with tanks and military aggression. Standing up to any leader takes guts. But pushing back against a dictator like Vladimir Putin doesn't necessarily end with incarceration. Anti-government blogger Alexei Navalny has survived nerve-agent poisoning and is still behind bars (and could be facing another 15 years). He dared to call out Putin for, among other things, "sucking the blood out of Russia."

Navalny from prison: Corruption flourishes when there's disregard for human rights

Hearing stories of Ukrainians who have been pushed out of their homes is unbearable. Biden announced sanctions on Russian banks and tech imports. Will these hurt Putin, or his people? Will they stop Putin's aggression in Ukraine? Doubtful. Ukrainians are standing in endless lines for bread and gasoline, and we're presenting them with an unwinnable strategy.

As a veteran, my heart is breaking for the men and women in uniform who may be thrown into yet another conflict. After 20 years of fighting in Afghanistan, the nation is war-weary, and its troops are suffering. Proof: the suicide rate among veterans in 2019 was exponentially higher than the rate among non-veterans. Barely six months out of Afghanistan, Biden has sent 7,000 troops to Germany. He has repositioned others in Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Poland and Romania. We don't have a draft in this country, but we use our forces as if we do.

In what will surely be a long battle, there are no winners. And there is everything to fear.

Eileen Rivers, projects editor

These days, the nightmares keep coming

As small children, our parents read us bedtime stories they hope will give us sweet dreams. The heroes might face adversity, but go on to live happily ever after. The bad guy is easy to spot and always brought to justice.

The reality of adulthood is learning sometimes the ending isn't always happy. Sometimes it's difficult to define who's good and who's bad. Maybe the resolution isn't always clear.

There's a passage in the Book of Ecclesiastes that resonates with me:

"There is something else meaningless that occurs on Earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve."

For a long time, the United States has been able to tell itself a bedtime story that says by the power of our values, our democracy, our struggle for a more perfect union we can build a story we hope leads to a happily ever after for us and the rest of the world. I count my dear late grandfathers, World War II veterans, as being among the heroes, even as they served a country that was complex and not always just for them, too.

The situation in Ukraine shows the limits of our power and the complexities of reality.

But there's nothing complex about this, the man who delivered one of the most chilling speeches of the 21st-century moments before launching unprovoked strikes at the people of Ukraine is the bad guy. There can be no more debate about that.

Austin Bogues, commentary editor

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: What we fear as Russia invades Ukraine and Zelenskyy holds firm