Look, I understand why Volodymyr Zelensky is doing what he’s doing. His nation is fighting for its life against Russia. It is in his best interest to draw the US and Europe into maximally committing to Ukraine’s defense.
But it is emphatically not in our best interest — especially as we may be barreling towards Armageddon (as no lesser authority than POTUS said on Thursday). Josh Hammer has it right in his new column. Excerpt: At this juncture, the fighting—and in Russia’s case, the recent (likely sham) annexations—is taking place in four far-eastern subregions of Ukraine, and, to a lesser extent, Crimea. Those are the disputed lands that the Biden administration, and “liberal Western democracy” types more broadly, have deemed to be so existentially important to Ukraine and the integrity of “the West” that reconquering them is worth seemingly any military, economic, and humanitarian cost—up to, and very much including, the harrowing specter of open nuclear warfare between NATO and Russia.
Even worse, when it comes to the disputed lands themselves, reputable Gallup polling from 2014—the year Putin first marched into Crimea—showed that 73.9% of Crimeans thought becoming a part of Russia would improve their lives and their families’ lives (only 5.5% disagreed). As for the various enclaves of the Donbas, such as Luhansk and Donetsk, they are very much divided between ethnic Ukrainians and ethnic Russians; Luhansk, for instance, has a nearly even, 50-50 demographic split.
Let’s be as clear as possible: The median American citizen does not, and should not, care whether an ethnically divided, strategically unimportant, historically contested Slavic subregion or two in eastern Ukraine ultimately takes orders from Kyiv or Moscow.
Amen! Let the Russians have Crimea and far eastern Ukraine, which based on past voting patterns is more oriented towards Russia anyway, and let’s have peace.
Ukraine fought bravely, and drove the Russians back when no one expected them to last more than a few days. Zelensky will go down in Ukrainian history as a strong, even heroic leader who had a gift for rallying powerful Western allies to the cause. But Zelensky maximalism has reached its sell-by date.
It’s extremely frustrating to see the ruling class swooning for Zelensky and his cause. Nobody can question his bravery, and I completely understand sympathizing with Ukraine. I do too, to some extent; Russia had no business invading that country. But our ruling class seems bound and determined to project its own hopes and dreams onto Zelensky, in the same way it did with Ahmed Chalabi in Iraq. David Brooks writes today: The war in Ukraine is not only a military event, it’s an intellectual event. The Ukrainians are winning not only because of the superiority of their troops. They are winning because they are fighting for a superior idea — an idea that inspires Ukrainians to fight so doggedly, an idea that inspires people across the West to stand behind Ukraine and back it to the hilt.
That idea is actually two ideas jammed together. The first is liberalism, which promotes democracy, individual dignity, a rule-based international order.
The second idea is nationalism. Volodymyr Zelensky is a nationalist. He is fighting not just for democracy but also for Ukraine — Ukrainian culture, Ukrainian land, the Ukrainian people and tongue. The symbol of this war is the Ukrainian flag, a nationalist symbol.
Of course Zelensky is fighting for nationalism, as is every Ukrainian. But liberalism? Really?
Zelensky banned 11 political parties. Liberal?
In 2021 — a year before war broke out — Zelensky banned pro-Russian media outlets. Liberal?
Zelensky passed laws curtailing school instruction in the Russian language — this, to boost Ukrainian identity. He also restricts education in other languages. This is one reason why the Hungarians have been cool to him all along: ethnic Hungarians living in far western Ukraine are being told that they have only limited rights to educate their children in their own language. Liberal?
Zelensky has made peace with, and boosted, the Ukrainian neo-Nazi Azov Battalion, as well as admirers of Stepan Bandera, the World War II-era Ukrainian nationalist, fascist, anti-Semite, and Nazi collaborator. This is understandable, under the circumstances. When the Germans invaded France, royalists and communists made common cause to expel the Nazi invaders. Churchill himself said, “If Hitler invaded hell I would make at least a favorable reference to the devil in the House of Commons.” A war of national survival compels such things. Nevertheless, shouldn’t one be careful about saying that Zelensky, and the Ukrainians, are fighting for liberalism? Not the Banderists or the Azov Battalionistas.
In 2021 — again, before the war — the Pandora Papers disclosure revealed that Zelensky, despite having campaigned on a platform of fighting corruption, actually had a fortune stashed away in overseas bank accounts, as did his cronies. One thing you learn from living in the former Soviet bloc is that politics are heavily corrupt, on all sides. This is regrettable, to put it mildly, but it’s the way they do it in this part of the world. Zelensky is no different from anybody else — but do we really want to celebrate him as a liberal?
Zelensky has said he would consider legalizing same-sex partnerships — this, in response to a big push from his Western backers to grant gay marriage rights. This is almost certainly propaganda meant to mollify Western liberals. In 2013, 79 percent of Ukrainians polled opposed gay marriage. That number cannot have declined much in the past decade. Whatever Zelensky thinks privately, gay marriage is not coming to Ukraine anytime soon, because the Ukrainians are not Western liberals.
So when David Brooks writes:
Ukraine’s tenacity shows how powerful liberal nationalism can be in the face of an authoritarian threat. It shows how liberal nationalism can mobilize a society and inspire it to fantastic achievements. .. I think he’s projecting what he wants to see onto Zelensky. Ukraine’s tenacity shows how powerful nationalism is. Liberalism has nothing to do with it. The Azov Battalion defending Mariupol fought with incredible courage. They are also fascists. Both things are true.
The Brooks column brings to mind something an American diplomat once told me: Americans come to this region and see what they want to see, according to their political views back home. It’s something I’ve tried to keep in mind when I look around at politics in this part of the world. As regular readers know, I like Hungarian PM Viktor Orban and his government, and have said that in some general ways, their approach is a model for American conservatives. But I don’t think of Orban as some kind of saint, nor do I believe that Hungarian conservatism is, or has to be, the same as American conservatism. The character of the Hungarian people is rather different from the American character, after all — and that’s fine. Celebrate diversity, and all that. Point is, I try to assess Orban while resisting projection onto him the kinds of things I would like to see happen in the US. I’m sure I fall short, but I try. I have found that when I meet European fans of Donald Trump — they do exist! — they often have created an idealized version of him, based on the kind of man they want him to be.
But neither Viktor Orban nor Donald Trump is trying to drag the US into a war that is moving closer to becoming nuclear. Zelensky is — and he has powerful voices in the US who valorize him and the Ukrainian cause beyond what the record, and reality, can support. The man loves his country, and that is an admirable thing. But we Americans who love our country should not let that Ukrainian patriot lead us by the nose to the brink of nuclear war.