The Ukrainian Appeal
On the morning of March 16, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave what may well be the speech of his life. One portion of it was a video that depicted the transformation that his country, vibrant and peaceful a mere three weeks ago, has experienced. Thousands of miles away in an auditorium in Washington, D.C., members of the United States Congress watched with rapt attention. When Zelensky was done they stood up and gave him a standing ovation.
As numerous commentators have pointed out, the war in Ukraine has done the impossible—or at least the improbable—for politics in the United States. It seems to have recreated the bipartisan consensus that used to be the norm in U.S. foreign policy. The Senate, so bitterly divided on just about everything, came together on the evening of the ides of March to pass a resolution condemning the war crimes committed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Congress had already passed a bill including $13.6 billion in humanitarian aid and military equipment to Ukraine, which President Joe Biden signed on Tuesday. Thanks to Ukraine, centrists are in vogue again. The odd men out, at least for now, are the likes of Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump, who continue to sing songs of praise for Putin. Their America First isolationism grates in a way it did not before.
Hours after Zelensky delivered his speech, Biden announced that the United States would send an additional $800 million in aid, including eight hundred new anti-aircraft systems. In response to Zelensky’s very particular request for higher altitude anti-aircraft systems, Biden promised that the United States would help Ukraine “acquire additional longer range anti-aircraft systems and the munitions for those systems.” Finally, the package would also include drones—“our most cutting-edge systems,” in Biden’s words.
All of this, however, is still unlikely to be enough for Ukraine. It is not the basis of the “humanitarian no-fly zone” that Zelensky very pointedly requested. The United States will not be “closing the sky” so the killing can stop. Even as Biden was announcing the package, the destruction continued, with reports this week of missile attacks on another Kyiv apartment building, a kindergarten in Kharkiv, and a theater in Mariupol.
To Ukrainians, indeed to anyone unfamiliar with the particularly idiosyncratic nature of American politics, this refusal to “close the sky” may seem enervating. Indeed, there are Republican lawmakers like Florida’s Brian Mast and Maria Elvira-Salazar who have been in favor of it, as has Trump stalwart Senator Lindsey Graham, who said it would be justifiable only if the Russians used chemical weapons. Speaking to Fox News after Zelensky’s speech, Republican Senator Rick Scott of Florida appeared to have been crying and said: “I admire him.” “My heart goes out to what’s going on,” Scott said. “I wish our president would move. We need to get the planes there.”
When American senators are moved to tears it means Zelensky succeeded at stoking a feeling of commonality with the people of Ukraine. In his speech, Zelensky appealed to the ineffable American appetite for rescuing the world, to be the gun-slinging cowboy that appears at the last minute when nearly all seems to be lost and sets things straight. It is after all what the United States did when it joined the Allies to change the course of World War II. Here now was an opportunity to renew the savior-in-chief status that the United States reveled in for over fifty years—arguably until the wars in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan clouded that proposition. In delivering Ukraine, those old trophies proclaiming American fighters as the bravest of all, their intentions the noblest of all, could be polished up again for another half century of display. Undoubtedly some on the American side hope to do so—such as the members of the Atlantic Council, a think tank of American ex-diplomats and foreign policy professionals, who have produced “senior military fellows” to offer advice on the weapons Ukraine most needs to win the war.
The reason for why the United States will not move to “close the sky” over Ukraine is because none of these groups, not the Republican senators moved to tears by President Zelensky, nor the vehement “more must be done” cabal of the Atlantic Council are in charge. The Democratic Party that is in charge is leery about beginning a new war mere months after it wrapped up another one. In having had to perform that unenviable task, and in remembering how political opponents were quick to critique and loathe to provide alternatives, the Biden team is understandably hesitant to embroil itself in a new quagmire while still wiping off the muck of the old.
Democratic reticence also has to do with the midterm elections. Red state Republican voters (those who can be rescued from the clutches of MAGA) are more likely to align with a message of patriotism and standing up to the Russians. Eastern Europe, with its white nationalism, its gendered societies where women hew to being “supporters” of their fighting men, is better aligned (culturally) with Republicans. Indeed, the only Ukrainian-American member of the U.S Congress hails from Indiana, a deep red state.
Democratic voters are more diverse, in this sense more critical of yet another war, skeptical of the racial politics of Eastern Europe via which thousands of African and Indian students from Ukraine were blocked for days prior to being allowed to flee into Poland. Instead of wanting to save other countries by proliferating war, the Democratic voter would like diplomacy to win so that urgent catastrophes like climate change and an end to fossil fuels could be repositioned back to the top of the political agenda.
President Volodymyr Zelenksy gave one of the most memorable speeches of this century, one that will undoubtedly be referenced and taught to students for decades to come. As a war president, he asked for weapons and war machines, an understandable position. It is undoubted that Ukraine will need many more things from the United States in the weeks and months to come. That case could also be made within the framework and priorities that matter to President Biden’s Democratic administration. Rhetoric and emotion are great, but sometimes surprising the listener works even better. Zelensky gave a speech that was strong and predictable, appealing to the American self-image as a global white knight, and it has yielded predictable responses. At the next opportunity, he could choose to explain how the conflict is creating a climate crisis that far exacerbates the risk already present, how it empowers far-right groups like the neo-Nazi Azov battalion, or how it utterly eviscerates the threads of our common humanity. There are ways in which the costs of war can be calibrated that do not deify toxic masculinity and military might. To get more from America and Americans, the Ukrainians must learn them.
On February 23, the day before the war began, I started listening to a Twitter Space led by a former Ukrainian doctor in New York City. In those early days, it was a place to express solidarity with Ukraine and hear accounts from those on the ground; emotions expressed were genuine and sincere. As the days have passed, the space became a place for has-been military men showing off their knowledge of weapons, toxic men with fake names who imply they have “spy” backgrounds, and tittering women who come to flirt with the former. If someone interjects or calls out the thundering toxicity of this cabal they are threatened with being “blocked” and banished in Putinesque style. It is terrible and sad and perhaps an apt metaphor for Ukraine being overrun with Russian forces. Here was a good country, with good people that is now overrun with grifters and mercenaries with varying agendas where loyalty must be proven and truth doesn’t exist.