Last Tuesday, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, dressed in olive-green fatigues, made a surprise visit to Bakhmut, in the eastern region of Donetsk, where his troops are engaged in a bloody battle with Russian invaders. He risked his life to boost the morale of his country’s defenders. If that’s not leadership, what is?
Last Wednesday, the Ukrainian president made a surprise visit to Washington, where he met with the American president and addressed Congress. He was dressed as he had been on Tuesday because, I surmise, he wanted to communicate visually that his nation is at war; a war from which he can have no respite; a war against Vladimir Putin, a predator allied with China’s Communists, Iran’s jihadis, and North Korea’s despotic dynasty—an axis of America’s enemies.
Commentator Tucker Carlson was not merely unimpressed, he was offended by what he saw as a fashion faux pas. “Today the president of Ukraine arrived at the White House like the manager of a strip club and started to demand money,” he told his television audience. “Amazingly, no one threw him out.”
To the Speaker of the House, Zelenskyy presented a battle flag from Bakhmut on which Ukrainian soldiers had written messages. “They asked me to bring this flag to you,” he said, “to the U.S. Congress, to members of the House of Representatives and senators whose decisions can save millions of people.”
Commentator Benny Johnson was not merely unmoved by this expression of gratitude, he was outraged. “It is a disgrace to wave any flag other than America’s inside our own Capitol,” he tweeted.
Such churlishness no doubt entertains television viewers and generates clicks. But it’s unserious.
Another contributing factor: reflexive contrarianism. Aren’t Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi’s economic, immigration, energy, climate, identity and many other policies damaging American interests? (Yes!) Doesn’t that imply that their support for Ukraine also should be opposed, and that conservatives should cut the Kremlin some slack? (No!)
Misinformation may play a role, too. A friend asked if I wasn’t troubled by Zelenskyy “banning certain churches.” I explained that there are two Orthodox churches in Ukraine. One opposes Russia’s attempt to turn the country into a vassal province. The other is loyal to the patriarch in Moscow, who is loyal to Putin and supports the eradication of the Ukrainian state and culture by whatever means—war crimes included.
A bit more: In 2017, as a commissioner on the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, I visited Ukraine and saw for myself that the Orthodox churches—as well as Catholics, Protestants, Jews and Muslims—all enjoyed religious freedom. By contrast, USCIRF singled out Russia for its oppression of religious minorities.
The anti-Ukrainian right is de facto allied with Code Pink, Win Without War and other far-left groups triggered by increases in American defense spending and the strengthening of NATO.
Some moderate figures on the left also don’t get it. Batya Ungar-Sargon, the liberal deputy opinion editor at Newsweek, wrote: “It is possible to admire President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people’s bravery, resilience, and fortitude in the face of a malevolent, godless foe while also recognizing that his interests are not our interests, his fight is not our fight, and his requests should not be granted.”
To understand why that’s dead wrong, imagine that Ukraine had quickly fallen to Russia’s military machine—as most analysts expected. Would Putin have retired to his Italianate palace on the Black Sea? No, because his mission is to re-establish the Russian empire.
He’d have figured: “After surrendering to the Taliban in Afghanistan, the Americans turned a blind eye to my conquest of Ukraine. So, what are the chances they’ll go to war over Lithuania, Latvia, or Estonia?”
If his reasoning was correct, that would be the end of NATO. The Poles, the Finns, the Kazakhs and other nations would soon be in the Kremlin’s crosshairs.
Meanwhile, in Beijing, Xi Jinping would finalize his plans for the conquest of Taiwan.
In Tehran, Ali Khamenei would know for certain that Americans will not stand in his way—especially if he becomes nuclear-armed.
In Pyongyang, Kim Jong-un would consider whether the time was ripe for an attack on South Korea. The Americans would implore him to negotiate, and he’d agree. He has a nuclear arsenal today because both he and his father have made fools of American presidents and their envoys.
If you understand all this, you should also grasp that the anti-Ukrainian right cannot claim to care about American greatness. And those on the left obsessed about bathrooms and pronouns while Russian troops in Ukraine slaughter, rape and steal children cannot claim to give a fig about human rights.
If Americans abandon Ukraine, America will be seen—with justification—as a nation in terminal decline. Even the past will look different if it turns out that World War II and the Cold War only postponed—but did not prevent—the rise of totalitarianism.
Ukrainians are reminding the world what it means to value freedom. I’ve been less surprised than some to see their courage and determination because, as an election observer for the nonpartisan International Republican Institute during the 2019 Ukrainian election, I saw how proud and empowered Ukrainians were to be exercising their right to choose their leaders.
Today, that and every other right Ukrainians have enjoyed since the collapse of the Soviet Union is threatened. But President Zelenskyy is not asking Americans to take up arms and fight alongside Ukrainians. He’s asking Americans to continue providing arms made by American workers in American factories so that Ukrainians can frustrate the ambitions of a common enemy and the despots who back him.
If granting that request is not Strategery 101, what is?
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD) and a columnist for The Washington Times.