Today, Russia's war on Ukraine gave us a penetrating snapshot of democracy and autocracy.
This morning, Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky addressed a joint session of Congress virtually; his speech was live streamed to the American people. Looking tired, he wore a green military tee shirt and was unshaven, sitting next to a large Ukrainian flag, a visual representation of his besieged country.
Speaking from Kyiv, Zelensky emphasized that he and Ukrainians were fighting to be free, to preserve their democracy, and he reminded Americans of our own declared principles.
"Russia has attacked not just us, not just our land, not just our cities. It went on a brutal offensive against our values, basic human values. It threw tanks and planes against our freedom, against our right to live freely in our own country, choosing our own future, against our desire for happiness, against our national dreams, just like the same dreams you have, you Americans."
He urged Americans to remember our own darkest days, Pearl Harbor and 9/11, and begged for a no-fly zone. Knowing that is unlikely—it would initiate a world war—he asked for planes to protect the skies over Ukraine. He thanked the U.S. and President Joe Biden for their support, but asked for more. In addition to continuing economic sanctions, he called for new institutions and new alliances to respond to provocations more quickly than the world has done for Ukraine.
It is, indeed, unimaginable what destruction Putin has rained down on Ukraine in less than three weeks: just today we learned that Russians deliberately bombed a theater where more than 1000 people, including many children, had taken shelter, apparently revisiting the technique of targeting children and civilians he developed in Chechnya and Syria. Zelensky showed a six-minute video of the destruction in Ukraine, showing how a country that only three weeks ago was full of people just going about their lives has turned into a war zone.
"Peace in your country doesn't depend anymore only on you and your people," Zelensky said. "It depends on those next to you and those who are strong. Strong doesn't mean big. Strong is brave and ready to fight for the life of his citizens and citizens of the world. For human rights, for freedom, for the right to live decently, and to die when your time comes, and not when it's wanted by someone else, by your neighbor."
"Today, the Ukrainian people are defending not only Ukraine," Zelensky said, "we are fighting for the values of Europe and the world, sacrificing our lives in the name of the future. That's why today the American people are helping not just Ukraine, but Europe and the world to give the planet the life to keep justice in history." He called attention to how very young he is to be leading the global fight for self-determination, and the extraordinary weight he is bearing. "Now, I am almost 45 years old; today, my age stopped when the hearts of more than 100 children stopped beating. I see no sense in life if it cannot stop the deaths. And this is my main issue as the leader of my people, great Ukrainians."
"And as the leader of my nation, I am addressing… President Biden, you are the leader of… your great nation. I wish you to be the leader of the world; being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace. Thank you. Glory to Ukraine. Thank you for your support. Thank you."
In contrast, Russian president Vladimir Putin gave a public speech that Russia specialists saw as the launch of a fascist dictatorship. He continued to defend his invasion of Ukraine and claimed he was in an existential war for his country's survival. He warned his people that the West was counting on "the so-called fifth column, on national traitors," to destroy Russia. He identified those people as a culturally weak global elite who did not identify "with our people, not with Russia." They believe they are better than Russians, he said, and would do anything to keep their lifestyle.
The West, he said, is trying to split Russians and is using that "fifth column" to achieve its goal of destroying Russia. He called for Russians to distinguish true patriots from "scum and traitors"—political opponents and dissidents—and to get rid of the latter like bugs. "I am convinced that such a natural and necessary self-purification of society will only strengthen our country, our solidarity, cohesion and readiness to respond to any challenges."
Russia specialist Anne Applebaum tweeted: "Putin's call for a 'self-purification' of Russian society can have only one intention: To remind Russians of Stalin and his 'purges.' He wants them to be haunted by dark, ancestral memories, to remember their grandparents' stories and to be petrified with fear." Indeed, Russian authorities promptly launched a crackdown against anyone who showed any sympathy for western culture, beginning with a popular lifestyle blogger who had expressed opposition to the war on Instagram.
Putin's show of force internally may well reflect his weakness externally. The Pentagon estimates conservatively that the Russians have lost a staggering 7000 soldiers in less than three weeks in the invasion of Ukraine, more than the U.S. lost in 20 years in Iraq and Afghanistan combined. Officials estimate they have an additional 14,000 to 21,000 injured, out of a deployed fighting force of 150,000. Evelyn Farkas, the top Pentagon official for Russia and Ukraine during the Obama administration, told New York Times reporters Helene Cooper, Julian E. Barnes, and Eric Schmitt, "Losses like this affect morale and unit cohesion, especially since these soldiers don't understand why they're fighting."
Meanwhile, sanctions imposed by countries around the world are strangling the Russian economy. Reuters today reported that Russia is "on the brink of its first default on international debt since the Bolshevik revolution [of 1917]." A Russian political scientist tweeted: "I have collected some thoughts on the immediate impact of sanctions on the Russian economy." The short version: "30 years of economic development thrown into the bin." "All in all, no other economy in the world has experienced anything like this—extreme de-globalization in a matter of days."
Today, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that sanctions would remain until there is no chance that Russia could ever again launch the sort of invasion Putin has launched against Ukraine. The U.S. Departments of Treasury and Justice launched a task force with Australia, Canada, the European Commission, Germany, Italy, France, Japan, and the U.K. to freeze and seize assets of sanctioned oligarchs. The Treasury Department also began today to offer bounties of up to $5 million for information leading to "seizure, restraint, or forfeiture of assets linked to foreign government corruption."
All but about 40 American companies have pulled out of Russia, according to Judd Legum and Rebecca Crosby of Popular Information. Koch Industries, the second-largest privately owned business in America, is staying put. Political groups affiliated with right-wing billionaire CEO Charles Koch oppose broad sanctions and have suggested the U.S. should remain neutral in the crisis.
Meanwhile, a deepfake video of Zelensky calling for Ukrainians to surrender to Russia made the rounds on social media today. The false video used artificial intelligence to graft words onto Zelensky's image.
Tonight, Russia specialist Julia Ioffe told MSNBC: "Every time I'm asked by Americans do Russians really believe this stuff… as if we don't have the same thing happening here. You have 40% of the American population that was convinced in just one year that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 election…."
And, indeed, Trump loyalists like Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) and Fox News personality Tucker Carlson continue to echo Russian talking points to undercut Ukraine's war effort. Media scholar Eric Boehlert noted that "the anti-democratic, authoritarian bonds are becoming tighter as the Trump movement now turns to the Kremlin for its messaging cues. The overlap is undeniable, and the implications are grave."
Even more striking was white nationalist Nick Fuentes's encouragement for people to pray for what he called the brave Russian soldiers fighting to "liberate Ukraine from the Great Satan and from the evil empire in the world, which is the United States." Fuentes is an extremist but not an isolated one; both Greene and Representative Paul Gosar (R-AZ) spoke at a recent conference he organized (Greene in person; Gosar virtually), and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) took no action to disavow their participation.
After Zelensky spoke today, Biden announced another $800 million in military equipment for Ukraine, including 800 anti-aircraft systems. "What's at stake here are the principles that the United States and the united nations across the world stand for," he said. "It's about freedom. It's about the right of people to determine their own future."