Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been repeatedly compared to Winston Churchill. The comedian-turned-politician is not the avatar of democracy that his legion of American admirers think he is, let alone this generation’s savior of Western civilization. But it’s doubtful that Churchill’s star addresses to joint sessions of Congress during the Second World War were received with any less adulation than Zelensky’s speech in the week before Christmas.
The question of whether it was appropriate for Zelensky to appear on the podium of the House in a variant of the GI Joe costume he’s been sporting on Zoom appearances throughout the year misses the point. He may have been the first foreign leader to behave this way since Palestinian Liberation Organization terrorist Yasser Arafat showed up in 1993 at the White House in a military uniform to sign a peace deal with Israel that he never intended to keep. But it was par for the course for a man who knows that his role is to play the hero at any and all times.
What was fascinating about the orgy of praise and support for the massive amount of U.S. aid heading to Kyiv is the way most of the Republican congressional leadership seemed just as eager to fawn at the Ukrainian leader as the Democrats.
Most Americans sympathize with opposing a blatantly illegal and brutal invasion of Ukraine by Russian President Vladimir Putin. But the notion that “Providing assistance for Ukrainians to defeat the Russians is the number one priority for the United States,” as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell put it, is quite another thing. The same can be said for doubling the amount of money the United States was spending on Afghanistan in its last years for this war’s first year.
Yet that is exactly what the governing class appears to be telling us. Few in either party treated the Russian seizure of Crimea and part of Eastern Ukraine in 2014 as an existential crisis, let alone the most important issue facing the country. A lot has changed since then.
Democrats, who have opposed almost every instance of American military involvement abroad since Korea, have finally found a war they can love. That’s largely because Ukraine — and Zelensky — played a central role in the Democrats’ first impeachment of former President Donald Trump.
The myth that Trump was blackmailing Ukraine became linked to the equally fallacious claim that he had colluded with Russia to steal the 2016 presidential election. By the time Putin invaded Ukraine in February 2022, the country had become a symbol of the struggle against both Putin and Trump as well as a principal focus of left-wing NGOs devoted to “human rights” that are, regardless of its often-undemocratic behavior, deeply committed to Zelensky’s government.
At the same time, Republican congressional leadership is engaging in some Cold War nostalgia by acting as if Russia poses the same threat to the West as Soviet Communism did.
Once Putin’s war began and Ukraine became a plucky underdog successfully resisting the aggression of its larger neighbor, it also became the darling of an uncritical media while the Washington uniparty circled the wagons around the idea that its security was somehow synonymous with the battle for democracy. Since then, any scrutiny of Ukraine, even if only to discuss what exactly American taxpayers are supporting, is treated as only something extremists care about.
Zelensky’s government is itself largely corrupt, connected to the same sort of wealthy oligarchs that dominate Russia’s kleptocratic economy. That government treats its opposition and critical press with the same disdain as Putin. Yet few in the corporate media are interested in discussing these realities. The same applies to Zelensky’s suppression of the Russian Orthodox Church.
During Zelensky’s Washington visit, anything other than obsequious adulation was considered inappropriate if not downright unpatriotic. Those who point out Zelensky’s flaws while acknowledging that Ukraine is the injured party have been called “isolationists,” accused of possessing “only the most desiccated character” or are just behaving like “jerks” choosing to be on the wrong side of history. And that just involves commentary from some conservative outlets.
Even if we acknowledge that the Ukrainians are the good guys, the idea that going all in on this war is the only way to save Europe from Russian domination is risible. That’s especially true now that the Russian military has been exposed as a shambles, Putin’s attempt to topple Zelensky failed, and the war has become a bloody stalemate. Yet McConnell and many in the GOP’s Senate and House caucuses as well as some conservative pundits speak as if it were 1987 and the forces of the now-defunct Warsaw Pact were still poised to race to the Rhine on Moscow’s orders.
That is why they are fully on board with Biden’s decision to grant Zelensky a blank check which, after the congressional passage of the scandalous $1.7 trillion spending bill, is sending more than $100 billion to Ukraine this year while America’s own neglected southern border is being erased by a massive surge in illegal immigration.
Nor is any member of the establishment pointing out that Zelensky’s vow to continue fighting until the unlikely event that a nuclear power is completely defeated and thrown back to the 2014 borders ensures an unwinnable war can go on indefinitely, something from which only the Ukrainian president stands to gain.
Zelensky’s Washington charm offensive succeeded because it hit the sweet spot of both variants of the DC uniparty. It appealed to both Democrats’ hostility to Putin and to a GOP establishment that still instinctually supports all foreign adventures that can be constructed as a defense of democracy or the West, whether or not those criteria actually apply.
In this manner, and regardless of its impact on readiness to deal with the far more important threat from China, enthusiasm for this proxy war with Russia has seized hold of the inside-the-beltway crowd. Democrats ascribe criticism of the frenzy over Zelensky as evidence of Putin’s influence while the GOP establishment dismisses it as something only isolationists ready to appease any dictator would say. Neither criticism is true.
It is possible to despise Putin and oppose his invasion and still see the $100 billion (and surely counting) being poured into Europe’s most corrupt nation as both excessive and unrelated to direct American national interests. It’s equally possible to support self-determination for Ukraine and admire its fight for survival while viewing the adulation for Zelensky as divorced from the reality of his rule. It’s also preventing Washington from telling him that his war goals are unrealistic and could set off a catastrophic wider conflict that should be avoided at all costs, and that a negotiated settlement of the war is necessary.
The war in Ukraine is a humanitarian catastrophe that should be ended as soon as possible, not prolonged indefinitely in the vain hope that it will somehow result in either regime change in Moscow or a total victory for Kyiv. What was drowned out in the rhetoric of Zelensky’s visit was not isolationism or sympathy for Russia but the imperative to hold a debate about how American security is advanced by continuing this war at such a high cost in the absence of a direct interest in whose flag should fly over the Donbas or Crimea.