Zelensky’s Visit and the Season’s Spirit

Photograph Source: House FloorCast – Public Domain

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s surprise visit to Washington on December 21 was hailed as “historic.” It came 300 days after the Russian invasion and at a critical time for the continuation of robust United States aid and support. While Zelensky got much of what he asked for in terms of military equipment (Patriot air defense system) and cash ($850 million in security assistance), a holiday season perspective offers a different focus on the visit. While accepting that Zelensky told the Congress, “Your money is not charity. It is an investment in global security and democracy,” one should wonder about the presents given by the U.S. Congress (and taxpayer) in the spirit of the holiday season.

All Christmas presents given to children are investments in one way or another. As for giving during Hanukkhah, gifts are exchanged each of the eight days and nights, and often “Hanukkah Gelt (money)” is given to children as are books and educational material.

In sum, was Uncle Sam playing Santa Claus or the generous Jewish uncle to the Ukrainian president? If so, what was the investment for the future?

Zelensky’s “presents” were meant to help Ukraine continue to battle against the Russian invasion. The military hardware and security assistance were specific to military activity. According to Zelensky’s wish list, Russian aggression must be physically thwarted and all of Ukraine’s pre-2014 territory, including Crimea, must be restored, much as Hanukkah celebrates the Jews retaking of Jerusalem and the re-dedication of the Second Temple.

In the short term, helping Ukraine militarily was the fundamental gift Zelensky received from Uncle Sam during his visit. But that was very short term. As Zelensky had famously said when offered to leave Ukraine: “I don’t need a ride. I need ammunition.” So now he has more ammunition, perhaps not all the holiday present he wanted, but certainly a considerable gift.

But what about the medium and long term? What about ending the war and negotiating peace? Here Zelensky had his own vision of the future and the consequences of the investment. “For me, as a president, just peace is no compromises as to the sovereignty, freedom, territorial integrity of my country, payback for all the damages inflicted by Russian aggression,” Zelensky said, in a clear declaration that Ukraine will not cede territory to Russia and that his wish list, beyond the military, is the total restoration of Ukrainian territory pre-2014. Zelensky’s uncompromising peace plan, which he shared with Biden and presented to Congress, was the same he had outlined to world leaders at the G20 summit in November.

Zelesky’s ten point peace plan is a clear reversal of traditional giving; the gift recipient continues along his vision without taking into consideration the donor’s perspective on his investment. Santa Claus, or the generous Jewish uncle, may have a different vision from the recipient of what they expect from their investment. Holiday money, they may think, should not be spent on outlandish purchases or wasted on expensive meals or clothing. As all parents or grandparents know, investing for the future would mean reading, education or other worthwhile endeavors. In Ukraine’s case, a worthwhile investment for the future would mean a negotiated peace settlement that might include “compromises”.

What was Uncle Sam’s vision for the future? How did he see his investment being spent? During a press conference, President Biden pledged to stand with Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” An indefinite time, unswerving help no matter what the Ukrainian president does? What about an investment for peace? “We’re going to help Ukraine succeed on the battlefield — if and when President Zelensky is ready to talk to the Russians, he will be able to succeed as well because he will have won on the battlefield,” Biden said.

So in the short term, Uncle Sam will help Ukraine win on the battlefield. Whether or not this is possible I leave to the military experts. But I have my doubts, especially considering that Russia is a nuclear power. Does Biden actually believe that Ukraine, with allied support, can defeat Russia on the battlefield? That Russia will accept military defeat without using nuclear weapons as a last resort?

And what does Biden mean by “as long it takes”? We see protracted crises in the Horn of Africa, Somalia, Yemen, Syria, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Does Biden think that the war in Ukraine will just end one day? Will it keep on like other ongoing crises in which a certain compassion fatigue will set in, if not monetary fatigue from U.S. taxpayers who think their money can be better spent domestically? Remember the endless war in Afghanistan.

What about “if and when President Zelensky is ready to talk to the Russians”? You mean that Uncle Sam, the more than generous giver, has nothing to say about when President Zelensky is ready to talk to the Russians and how the war will end? Should Santa or the generous Jewish uncle have nothing to say about how and when the gift/investment is used? Will Uncle Sam insist that Zelensky give up some of Ukraine’s territory in order to avert a continuing war or eventual world war? Doesn’t the generous donor have anything to say about this? (What in French is called le droit de regard.)

In the case of U.S. gifts to Ukraine, there is no reason to assume that the investment is a one-way street. Beyond the military hardware and security assistance, the United States should be insisting on greater Ukrainian flexibility in some negotiated settlement. It is not up to President Zelensky alone to decide when and how he will negotiate. The United States’ investment is not just for a battlefield victory; it is for a sustainable and equitable peace acceptable to all sides. That’s a real investment for the future.

In this holiday season of giving, Zelensky must be reminded that the United States’ and its allies’ investment is for a lasting peace, something in keeping with the spirit of the season.

Daniel Warner is the author of An Ethic of Responsibility in International Relations. (Lynne Rienner). He lives in Geneva.