Mr. Zelensky goes to Washington


Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky visited Washington on Thursday, meeting with President Biden, addressing Congress, and thanking the American people for their support of his country. But during the biggest land war in Europe since World War II, some voices on the right wanted to focus on relatively trivial matters, particularly Zelensky’s choice to not wear a suit in his speech before Congress. There’s a proxy war going on between the U.S. and Russia, so why are so many folks acting like fashion critics?

Zelensky Comes to Washington, but Did Everyone Understand the Point?

Whom do you want to win in the conflict between Russia and Ukraine?

That’s a separate question from, “How much aid should the U.S. send to Ukraine?” although your views on the former undoubtedly influence your views on the latter. I find myself in a spot near the GOP leader, and likely (maybe? probably?) next speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy: We support Ukraine and want it to win, but that doesn’t mean we’re writing the Ukrainians a blank check.

Yesterday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced a $1 billion drawdown that “will provide Ukraine with expanded air defense and precision-strike capabilities, as well as additional munitions and critical equipment that Ukraine is using so effectively to defend itself on the battlefield. The Department of Defense is also announcing an additional $850 million of security assistance for Ukraine today under its Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. . . . This brings total U.S. military assistance for Ukraine to an unprecedented $21.9 billion since the beginning of the administration.”

It’s been a common and justified complaint that the U.S. was giving considerably more to support Ukraine than our European allies, even though those allies are a lot closer to the battlefront than we are. But in early December, the European Union pulled ahead:

Following the EU’s decision of large new financial aid, Europe has for the first time surpassed the US in the value of total committed aid to Ukraine. Germany has become the largest donor country in Europe. The EU has significantly expanded its support commitments. EU countries and institutions total nearly 52 billion Euros (about $55 billion) in military, financial and humanitarian assistance until November 20. The commitments made by the U.S. add up to just under 48 billion euros (about $51 billion). The main reason for the changes is an 18-billion-euro Macro-Financial Assistance (MFA) package agreed by the EU for 2023.

“Until now, the EU’s support to Ukraine since the start of the war has always lagged behind that of the United States. This has changed in recent weeks, as the total value of EU commitments now exceeds those of the U.S. The large new EU pledges are a welcome development, given the major role of this war for European security,” says Christoph Trebesch, head of the team producing the Ukraine Support Tracker.

Are there reasons to worry that the U.S. has limited ability to track the use of those weapons once they’re turned over to Ukraine? Yes. But for what it’s worth, U.S. officials said in early November they have not found any instances of illicit use or transfer of American arms in Ukraine since the invasion began. It’s likely that you’re not seeing Ukrainians’ getting involved in black-market arms sales, because their country is getting invaded, and they need those weapons for themselves. Starving men don’t resell food.

Yesterday brought a lot of discussion about Volodymyr Zelensky’s choice to wear his usual dark-green sweatshirt and cargo pants while visiting the White House. Some people’s comments on social media seemed downright enraged, with Benny Johnson fuming, “This ungrateful piece of s*** does not have the decency to wear a suit to the White House — no respect the country that is funding his survival . . . track suit wearing eastern european con-man mafia.”

Now, if you heard or read Zelensky’s address to Congress, he gushed with thanks to the American people and showed plenty of respect:

Dear Americans, in all states, cities and communities, all those who value freedom and justice, who cherish it as strongly as we Ukrainians in our cities, in each and every family, I hope my words of respect and gratitude resonate in each American heart. . . .

Americans gained this victory, and that’s why you have succeeded in uniting the global community to protect freedom and international law. Europeans gained this victory, and that’s why Europe is now stronger and more independent than ever. The Russian tyranny has lost control over us. And it will never influence our minds again. . . .

Financial assistance is also critically important, and I would like to thank you, thank you very much, thank you for both financial packages you have already provided us with and the ones you may be willing to decide on. Your money is not charity. It’s an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.

In other circumstances, I could see getting upset about a foreign leader’s choice of attire while visiting the White House. If French president Emmanuel Macron visited the White House and didn’t wear a suit, we would be surprised and dismayed.

But Zelensky’s in awfully unique circumstances. We don’t know all the details of how he got to the U.S., but European newspapers published a picture of the Ukrainian president at the train station in the southern Polish city of Przemysl, just across the Polish–Ukrainian border.

Flight trackers determined that shortly after Zelensky announced he was going to visit the U.S., a U.S. government Boeing C-40B took off from Poland’s Rzeszów airport. That U.S. government jet looks like a miniature version of Air Force One, with “UNITED STATES OF AMERICA” written in big letters on the side.

Zelensky traveled that way because on any other jet, there’s a chance — not a big chance, but a chance — that Russia would deem shooting the plane down worth the risk. Remember, if Putin and his top military advisers had a great ability to assess risk and consequences, he wouldn’t have launched the invasion. Sure, it would be extremely dangerous for the Russians to send some MiGs to attempt to shoot down a foreign leader over NATO airspace. But it’s also extremely dangerous to dig trenches and camp right outside of the Chernobyl nuclear plant and subject yourselves to high levels of radiation, and the Russians chose to do that, too. The phrase, “Oh the Russians would never do that!” needs to be put on temporary hiatus.

During the biggest land war in Europe since World War II, getting upset about what Zelensky chooses to wear while visiting the U.S. seems awfully silly and shallow. (I notice that a lot of people judge political figures — and likely everyone else — on their appearance because you don’t need to know anything else about them. Learning anything else about the person requires effort, and the last thing some people ever want to do is put effort into learning something they didn’t already know.)

There’s an odd narrative taking shape in some corners of the right that somehow, the Ukrainians are being selfish or lazy by asking the West for military assistance and relief for refugees. Yesterday, Donald Trump Jr. tweeted that “Zelensky is basically an ungrateful international welfare queen.” Matt Walsh called Zelensky “a grifting leech.”

What else are the Ukrainians supposed to do? Lie down and die?

Guys such as Trump Jr. and Walsh know that the Russian army has been trying to kill Zelensky and as many Ukrainians as possible for most of the past year, right? What do they think the Ukrainians are using all that aid for, elaborate parties?

(I notice that some people on the right are choosing to believe “reports on social media” that Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska*, went on a €40,000 shopping spree in Paris. First, I can’t help you if you choose to believe what you read on GatewayPundit — home of the claims that Robert Mueller committed sexual assault, that Georgia election officials created 250,000 fake votes to help Biden win, that Dr. Anthony Fauci plotted the creation of a new avian flu virus in October 2019 — and that, more recently, has given comprehensive coverage to Kari Lake’s claim that she’s the real winner in the Arizona governor’s race. Second, whether or not we ever determine if this is a rumor the Russians are trying to spread, we should keep in mind that this is exactly the kind of rumor the Russians would want to spread. Third, those rumors don’t say where the money for her alleged shopping spree came from; before running for office, Zelensky was a successful comedian and television star, and owned a one-quarter stake in his own television-production company. His net worth was estimated at $20 million by Forbes. It’s entirely possible that Zelenksa spent her own family’s money on a shopping spree in Paris. We can argue about whether a luxury-shopping trip is appropriate in wartime, but that’s not a grift, or fraudulent, or evidence of stealing from the public treasury.)

Zelensky’s a “welfare queen” because he and his country are depending upon foreign aid? Do the Ukrainians seem lazy to you? Do they seem unwilling to work hard or make sacrifices?

Back in November, General Mark Milley, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, publicly estimated that around 100,000 Russian and 100,000 Ukrainian soldiers had been killed or injured in the war in Ukraine, and that around 40,000 civilians had died after being caught up in the conflict. What, did they all slip and fall?

The more people want to talk about Zelensky’s attire, or whether his speech demonstrated sufficient gratitude, or rumors of spending sprees in Paris, the less they seem to want to talk about, you know, the actual war going on. That seems a lot more consequential to everyone around the world than the question of why no one bought Zelensky a suit to wear during his trip to Washington. Maybe when you focus on the war, and the Russian attacks upon civilian targets, and the widespread human suffering, it becomes a lot tougher to justify not helping the Ukrainians with everything we can spare.

*Russian surnames have masculine and feminine forms, which is why he’s President Zelensky (or Zelenskyy) and she is First Lady Zelenska.

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