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Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has done it again. During an historic visit to Washington, amid the ferocious war waged by Putin’s Russia on his country, the Ukrainian leader delivered another stellar performance, pleading for more security assistance from Washington to “speed up our victory” over tyrannical Russia.
A savvy politician and former actor, Zelenskyy did what he thought he had to do in order persuade Americans to continue opening their hearts and pocketbooks. His country is being devastated and his people are dying by the thousands under Russia’s relentless assault. And Zelenskyy believes that additional billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars will help him expel the Russians and secure victory. He believes he is justified in using every possible tool in his toolbox, including his talents as a performer.
This time, however, he employed a toned down and calibrated approach. There was no heart-tugging video with images of maternity hospitals blown up by Russian missile strikes or graphic footage of dead or wounded women and children, as we saw during his virtual appearance before Congress in March. No sobbing interpreters translating Zelenskyy’s graphic descriptions of the deaths of children and the elderly. No lecturing.
Zelenskyy thanked Congress and the American people for the “invaluable assistance,” having expressed hope that his “words of respect and gratitude resonate in each American heart.” He spoke accented but very comprehensible English, using forceful language and a somber tone as he was reading from his notes, frequently looking up to connect with his audience and sometimes placing his hand on his heart to express gratitude. He periodically raised his voice and tapped the podium with his fist for emphasis. He wore his signature olive-color crew-neck military style sweater, cargo pants, and heavy boots, maintaining his image of a wartime president.
Zelenskyy stressed the usual theme: that Ukraine is fighting for freedom and democracy, that his country will secure victory, and that U.S. “financial assistance is critically important” to kick out the Russian occupiers from his land. He said the battle in Ukraine was not only for its territory but also for “another part of Europe” and claimed that not only Ukrainian but also American democracy was at stake. Zelenskyy also issued a gentle warning: “It is just a matter of time when they [the Russians] will strike against your other allies, if we do not stop them now.”
Let’s take a clinical look at these claims. Ukraine remains one of the most corrupt places in the world, ranking 123rd out of the 180 countries on the corruption scale, only slightly better than the legendarily corrupt Russia, which is 139th. Corruption is one of the reasons that Ukraine hasn’t qualified for E.U. and NATO memberships.
While Putin does seek to re-establish control over post-Soviet states, which Moscow views as its security perimeter and its version of the U.S. Monroe Doctrine, he has no designs on any NATO countries, including the former Soviet Baltic States. The claim by Washington and Kyiv politicians that Russia would attack a NATO country – which would trigger the collective defense clause – is nonsensical. The Russian army is struggling to secure a clear military victory over a much smaller opponent, having exhibited incredible tactical incompetence in this war. How on earth would it go against a NATO nation or even Sweden or Finland? Putin is not suicidal.
Zelenskyy knows that he is asking a lot from Americans. And it is not the last time that he will be pleading for assistance. U.S. aid to Kyiv already exceeds 50% of Ukraine’s 2021 GDP of $200.1 billion. Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys Shmyhall, recently estimated the cost of rebuilding the country – even if the war were to end — at $750 billion. Given our national debt of $31 trillion, the math is beginning to look prohibitive to many Americans. Perhaps this is why support among Americans for indefinite aid to Ukraine has dropped, and nearly half of Americans (47%) believe that Washington must urge Kyiv to settle for peace, according to a recently released poll from The Chicago Council on Global Affairs.
Finally, even the Pentagon has recently acknowledged what was clear to serious analysts from the very start – this war is unwinnable in military terms. U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff Chair Mark Milley admitted to reporters in November that the “probability of Ukrainian military victory happening anytime soon is not high.”
We learned in Afghanistan that even for the Taliban, which lacks a regular military, it doesn’t take much to keep a low-intensity conflict going indefinitely. It took Washington “experts” 20 years to absorb that reality and it cost American taxpayers $2.2 trillion and 6,000 lives. Putin’s military, as tactically inept as it is, is still the top dog in the region. As long as Russia keeps gradually dismantling Ukraine, Putin has achieved his ultimate goal – prevent Ukraine’s NATO membership. Russia’s definition of victory is denying victory to Kyiv and Washington.
Acutely aware of this conundrum, Zelenskyy and the Washington politicians staged quite dramatic political theater on Wednesday, tugging at Americans’ hearts, four days before Christmas, and clouding their minds with the usual deceptive narrative. Zelenskyy contrasted what life looks like for Ukrainians now with what it is for us. He thanked every American family that “cherishes the warmth of its home.” He noted that Ukrainians will be celebrating Christmas and lighting candles not because it’s “romantic” but because “there is no electricity.”
The charismatic Ukrainian Churchill in a T-shirt mentioned former President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, gifted a Ukrainian flag that he brought from the battlefield, and gave Nancy Pelosi a big kiss at the end of his speech. “Providing assistance for Ukrainians to defeat the Russians is the number one priority,” declared Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., before Zelenskyy’s address. The message to Americans delivered by the Washington establishment and Kyiv on Wednesday was clear – Ukraine’s priorities equal America’s.