Discover more from The Bulwark
Ukraine Needs Better Public Diplomacy
Even as Ukraine is gaining ground in its east and south, it’s losing ground in American public opinion.
JUST AS UKRAINIAN PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKY visited the United States last month, I returned from volunteer work in Ukraine, delivering ambulances to hospitals. The contrast between the subdued support for Ukraine on display in Washington and the optimism I found in Kyiv was stark, almost shocking.
Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine posed what should have been an easy foreign policy question: A predatory dictatorship seeks to expand by invading its smaller neighbor. The same dictatorship proclaims broader ambitions in other neighboring countries. It wages a cruel war, targeting civilians, kidnapping children, and generating widespread reports of rape and torture. In addition, the invader is backed by other adversarial powers from Asia to the Middle East, all of whom have their own expansionist tendencies and desire to attack American interests. Should the United States work with other leading democracies to support the victim? For the first few months of Ukraine’s fight to defend itself against Russian aggression, the consensus answer was an enthusiastic “Yes.”
Yet, nineteen months after the invasion, President Zelensky met a mixed response in Washington, with support from President Joe Biden and the Senate, but less from the House of Representatives, especially the Republican majority. And such support as there was frequently came with conditions: Ukraine will get longer-range missiles, but they will be dribbled out. Congress will appropriate $300 million in further assistance for Ukraine, but most Republicans will vote against it, so future aid becomes a political question. The United States will be your friend, but only in slow motion.
Some of the hesitation from U.S. policymakers arises from an understandable concern about interventionism, unwarranted escalation, or costs. Some of it might be due to misplaced isolationism. Either way, opposition to American support for Ukraine is abetted and energized by Russia’s powerful global information system, working overtime to raise doubts about Ukraine and Zelensky.
It was widely discussed in Kyiv that the most important battlefront for Ukraine was not on its east or south, but in Washington. Although European support for Ukraine remains vital for the country’s survival, it is difficult to see a scenario in which European support is sustained absent U.S. support. Simply put, Washington has veto power over Ukraine's ability to sustain the war.
Keep up with all our independent coverage of the war in Ukraine: Sign up for a free or paid Bulwark subscription today.
At the beginning of the invasion, Ukraine’s advantage in the global information battle—the struggle for hearts and minds that played out mostly on social media—was one of the great surprises of the war. Russia spent decades and huge sums of money building propaganda channels like Sputnik and RT, as well as less overt tools of influence like troll farms. In 2022, these well-resourced organizations seemed inept against a spontaneous outpouring of support from people in free countries from Estonia to Japan, and especially against the North American Fellas Organization (NAFO), the semi-organized legion of social media users who fought Russian disinformation with dog memes.
This year looks very different. Americans’ instinct for supporting the underdog lagged even as Ukraine successfully defended its capital and drove the Russian military off some of its territory. Ukraine could stand up to RT and Sputnik, especially as sanctions caused them to radically curtail their activities in the United States and Europe, but Ukraine seems outmatched by the combined pressure of far-right American politicians and news outlets. At this point, the most dangerous figures Ukraine faces might not be Vladimir Putin (who some Ukrainians call their “secret weapon” because of his strategic blunders) and his top general Valery Gerasimov but right-wing figures in American politics and the media.
IF UKRAINE HOLDS THE GEOPOLITICAL high ground, the legal high ground, and the moral high ground, why does it find itself in an equivocal position in Washington? How can Ukraine do a better job of reassuring Americans that ongoing support is, in addition to being a humanitarian act, in the U.S. security interest?
These three steps would help Ukraine better communicate in the United States:
Ukraine needs to flood the zone. Remember that grassroots support is more important than elite support. The U.S. foreign policy community is overwhelmingly sympathetic to Ukraine, but the U.S. general public is more ambivalent. Policy questions are debated incessantly in public, and unlike most questions of foreign policy, support for Ukraine has become among the most salient issues in American politics today. Indeed, divisions over whether and how much to support Ukraine were one of the reasons House Republicans almost forced government shutdown (and may force one next month). Ukraine needs to significantly upgrade its outreach and social media activity, from sending its military to speak to U.S. veterans’ groups, to teach-ins on college campuses, to showing documentaries at U.S. film festivals. Sympathetic U.S.-based NGOs can play a valuable part here as well.
Ukraine needs a truth squad. The Russians are unabashed about spreading falsehoods and they are supported by a cadre of Americans who echo their talking points or fixate exclusively on putative flaws in Ukraine. The responses from the NAFO countertrolls have at times been brilliant, but there is now a need for something less ad hoc: Ukraine needs a full-time team to provide real-time refutation of the propaganda from Russia and its fellow travelers.
Don’t only look in the mirror. Ukraine has suffered grievously and there are daily stories of heroism and nobility from Ukraine. But this should not be the exclusive theme of messaging. U.S. national security concerns stem not just from the sorrow of Ukraine, but the story of Putin’s grandiose ambitions. Ukraine can and should make two cases to the American people simultaneously: that supporting Ukraine as it struggles against a genocidal war is the right thing to do morally, and that abandoning Ukraine—and perhaps other countries next—to Putin’s marauding, insatiable armies is the wrong thing to do strategically.
ON OUR LAST NIGHT IN KYIV, a Ukrainian Army lieutenant offered these parting words:
We do need your help. Russia is much bigger than we are, and they have considerable backing from China as well, so without the support of the United States and Europe, we would not be able to hold our own. But we will never ask for U.S. troops. This has to be our fight. If we are not willing to fight and die for our country, we certainly cannot ask others to do the fighting for us.
The lieutenant was right. This has to be Ukraine’s fight, but the United States has a role to play. The harsh lesson of the twentieth century was that if aggression succeeds, it will lead to more aggression. Better communication in the United States will help the United States work with the world’s democracies to check Russia’s aggression. There are certainly costs and risk involved in supporting Ukraine, but not supporting Ukraine would entail even greater costs and risks.