Zelenskyy’s stirring appeal to conscience: How far should America go?

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He invoked Pearl Harbor and 9/11, Mount Rushmore and Martin Luther King.

He portrayed America and Ukraine as having the same dreams and values, and both having known the pain of destruction delivered from the sky. 

Volodymyr Zelenskyy rose to the moment in his address to Congress on Wednesday, an unlikely leader who has become the face of the brave Ukrainian resistance to Russia’s brutality – and wants the U.S. to help him stop the ongoing massacre of civilians.

Lawmakers looked riveted as Zelenskyy asked for a humanitarian no-fly zone and, knowing he probably won’t get that, pleaded for more defensive weapons to enable him to save his embattled nation. When he played a video showing quick-cut scenes of life and death, it was impossible not to be moved unless you don’t have a heart. 

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Footage of the war in Ukraine is displayed as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the U.S. Congress.

Footage of the war in Ukraine is displayed as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the U.S. Congress.
(Associated Press)

Zelenskyy’s English-language finale was hugely effective–so much so that the White House leaked word of another $800 million in weapons for Ukraine, as President Biden outlined in a speech hours later.

As a former sitcom actor and entertainer, Zelenskyy won the presidency with no political experience, yet his media mastery turned out to be just what his people needed as he alternates between beseeching Western leaders to help save his country and lecturing them for not doing more. And he knows how to drive the news cycle, such as taking selfies with wounded soldiers. After his big Hill speech, he did an interview with NBC’s Lester Holt.

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After thanking Biden earlier, Zelenskyy finished by saying: “I’m addressing President Biden. You’re the leader of your nation, I wish you to be the leader of the world.”

But in this international crisis, what exactly does that mean?

Even Biden’s critics should acknowledge that he has done an excellent job holding together the NATO coalition on financial sanctions and military assistance. But three weeks into a war in which thousands of Ukrainian civilians have been slaughtered, the $800 million announcement – even coming after a billion bucks in aid over the past year – feels small and inadequate.

A careful course

The president, of course, has to chart a careful course that avoids plunging us into World War III. Given the agonizing Russian attacks on civilians, including a hospital and a mosque, the temptation is strong to get into the no-fly business. But it’s hard to imagine that doesn’t lead to a direct confrontation between U.S. and Russian forces. 

Ukraine War Javelins

Ukraine War Javelins
(Fox News)

As National Review puts it: “NATO forces that enter Ukraine or Ukrainian airspace are likely to be treated as legitimate targets by the Russian forces there. Sooner or later — or perhaps immediately — Russian forces will fire upon the NATO forces, the NATO forces will retaliate, and the war between Russia and NATO begins.”

The magazine says Biden administration officials “may well end up being the only ones willing to tell Zelensky ‘no.’”

‘Concerted’ effort?

Another conservative publication, The Federalist, sees “a concerted and bipartisan effort … underway in Washington to escalate U.S. involvement in the Ukraine war.” 

Those, including Republican lawmakers, pushing the U.S. and NATO to send Ukraine heavy weaponry, are promoting “an unprecedented level of direct military support for Ukraine that would undoubtedly — and rightly — be interpreted by Moscow as a sharp escalation by the West. … Perhaps the people making these arguments want the United States to get involved as a belligerent, and don’t really believe their hand-waving about the risks associated with their schemes.”

Perhaps. What’s noteworthy is that this increasingly fierce debate is taking place on the right.

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It was George W. Bush who launched the war in Iraq, which was increasingly opposed by Democrats and which Barack Obama promised to end. It was Bush who launched the war in Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, and Donald Trump, breaking with GOP orthodoxy, made a peace deal – though the chaotic withdrawal was carried out by Biden.

Now conservatives are debating whether Biden is doing too much or not enough.

Fine lines

I’m torn, having immersed myself in an invasion in which Vladimir Putin is committing war crimes every day. The fine lines between sending Javelin anti-tank missiles (OK) and Polish MiG fighters (not OK) seem like arbitrary bureaucratic distinctions. Everything is just moving too damn slowly. Ukraine is running out of time. Would a humanitarian airlift be a greater affront to Moscow than cutting Russian banks out of world commerce? 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks in Kyiv, Ukraine.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks in Kyiv, Ukraine.
(Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

If the concern is that we will needlessly provoke Putin, what else could he do? Bomb even more civilian targets? Authorize the killing of journalists? Shell refugees after promising them safe passage?

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The U.S. and the West are crippling his economy through escalating sanctions. Aren’t those steps, while thoroughly justified, hostile actions? 

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Zelenskyy told NBC that World War III “may already have started.” That may be a rhetorical flourish, but it also seems like potential reality for which we must be prepared.

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