Right after Russian troops invaded eastern Ukraine, Fox News Host Tucker Carlson asked an important question: ‘Why do you hate Russian President Vladimir Putin?’ He added: “It may be worth asking yourself, since it is getting pretty serious, what is this [conflict] really about?”
Carlson answered his own questions by telling viewers they should not hate Putin, because he has not “promoted ‘racial discrimination’ in schools, made fentanyl, attempted ‘to snuff out Christianity’ or eaten dogs.”[i]
Carlson is probably correct when he says that Russia’s President has done none of those terrible deeds. And I’m sure there are other terrible things that he has not done. Nonetheless, I will offer quite a different answer.
I dislike using the word “hate,” but in this case, I will make an exception:
I hate Vladimir Putin because he just shattered peace in Europe by launching the biggest military offensive since World War II. (Think about that.) I hate him because, without provocation, he invaded a sovereign democratic nation. I hate him, because he will be responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocents, including young soldiers (both Russian and Ukrainian) who are serving their countries. How absurd is war between two nations whose people consider each other brothers and sisters, share a religious faith and often speak the same language? No surprise, therefore, that thousands of Russians have bravely taken to the streets to protest his war, despite the threat of arrest and its consequences.[ii]
And I hate him because he is anti-democratic and hates freedom, is cynical, corrupt and egomaniacal. His dream of a restored Russian empire has become a nightmare for millions in his country, his part of the world and for us. His hatred of democracy led him to kill Russia’s democracy in its infancy and interfere with our elections.
I hate Vladimir Putin because he murders and imprisons political opponents and journalists who have dared to disagree with him, expose his lies and tell the truth.
I’ll correct myself on one point. If you consider that Ukraine is a democracy, that it ejected a pro-Russian president in favor of a pro-Ukrainian President (for Ukraine!) and shares a border with Russia, then, in fact, Ukraine DID provoke Putin. For someone who hates freedom, that counts as provocation.
Moreover, in pathetic and offensive ways, Putin has tried to depict Ukraine as the aggressor, and in need of “denazification.” He has called invading forces “peacekeepers.” In Putin-world, good is bad and up is down. If it were not for the savvy and somewhat novel U.S. policy to share intelligence of Putin’s troop build-up and strategies, many more people would have been naïve enough to believe his false justifications for his war. (Note, in Russia, where Putin now controls much of the media, many of his people believe his lies.)
So, Mr. Carlson, what is this conflict really about? Just that. An autocratic ruler who feels threatened by a smaller state, whose citizens democratically elected their president and enjoy freedom—until now. Because it sought membership in a defensive treaty organization that has kept the peace, Putin sees fit to invade, murder and conquer.
Now I have questions for Tucker Carlson and a few other Americans who have praised and defended this man. Why do you admire such a leader? Is it the strength and machismo he projects? Isn’t he just a bully with a powerful military under his command? Or is it Putin’s brilliant military strategy that you like? Surely, he will not mire his troops in a never-ending occupation and brutal counterinsurgency, because he has learned from Russia’s experience in Afghanistan (and ours there, and in Vietnam and Iraq.)
Just a few more questions: What American, democratic values do you think Putin embodies? Is it the sham elections or a parliament that rubberstamps whatever he wants? Or is it his crackdowns on free speech and a free press and poisonings of political opponents? Or do you appreciate the Judeo-Christian values he personifies like compassion, justice, charity and love? Would you want to live in a county that has a leader like him?
Now I want to consider a different question: Why should we care about Ukraine? As terrible as the invader is, why is Ukraine our concern? Ukraine is far away from us. We did not get all hot and bothered when Putin annexed Crimea. No one that I know wants to go on vacation there. Why should it matter?
My first answer is “see above.” If you do that, I promise I won’t repeat what I just said, except to summarize my answer this way: Ukraine should matter to us, because, once again, we now live in a world where a large and powerful nation is invading a smaller, weaker one because it can, and its despotic leader wants to. The last time a country annexed entire nations, the world became embroiled in a world war and that country systematically murdered one third of our people and millions of other innocents.[iii] I trust this is reason enough for Ukraine to matter to us. And I hope that is also reason enough to condemn Putin and those who praise, admire and defend him.
The following should not make us care more about Ukraine, but it is worth knowing that Ukraine boasts the fourth largest Jewish community in Europe, and its President is Jewish and identifies with his faith. We also have a long, proud but also a tragic history in Ukraine including the murder of approximately one million Ukrainian Jews during the Holocaust. The Chasidic movement began in Ukraine, and important authors and Zionists were born there. Since independence, large numbers of Jews have left Ukraine, but it has also seen a revival of Judaism. There is a diversity of Jews with about 30 Chabad houses and around 14,000 Jews who identify as Reform.
Finally, I want to look at the larger picture. Globally, more nations are turning away from democracy and toward autocracy. Democratic leaders, like those in the Philippines, Hungary, Poland, Slovenia, Turkey and Brazil are becoming more authoritarian as they pass laws granting them more powers as they strip rights from the people who elected them. The study I am citing includes the United States in its list of nations with democratic governments which are increasingly adopting authoritarian tactics.[iv]
Indeed, we are experiencing this anti-democratic trend here at home. We are only beginning to feel the effects as 19 states have passed 34 laws restricting access to voting between January 1 and December 7, and 49 states have introduced more than 440 such bills the 2021 legislative sessions.[v] Some states have passed new election laws granting authority over elections to partisan bodies which can more easily overturn the will of the people. (Texas already rejected thousands of mail in ballots, disenfranchising its own citizens.)
Recall, this attack on our democracy began with the lie that the last Presidential election was fraudulent and illegitimate, despite those making such claims ever presenting any evidence to prove them and despite recounts in battleground states that continued to show that Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump. The recounts also showed that many Republicans defeated their Democratic opponents. Come the midterm elections, we will see just how effective new state laws are in limiting access to the vote and stay tuned for adjustments to existing laws and new laws to suppress the vote.
The assault on our freedoms just opened a new front: Education and censorship. Many states are now introducing and passing laws that ban certain books and will limit speech in classrooms. Some state laws ban books from all public libraries. New laws dictate what teachers can say and what topics they must avoid, lest they cause any students’ discomfort. In a recent editorial, Jamelle Bouie warns,
There is a dangerous censoriousness pulsing through American society. In small towns and big cities alike, would-be commissars are fighting, in the name of a distinct minority of Americans, to stifle open discussion and impose their views on the community at large. Dissenters, when they speak out, are hounded, ostracized and sometimes even forced from their jobs.[vi]
Certainly, liberals have been guilty of trying to censor certain kinds of speech, but at present, the campaigns to ban books and curb free discourse in schools are coming from the right.
So, yes, Ukraine should matter to us. Just the fact that we are witnessing an unfolding human tragedy should matter. That it also represents another strike against freedom and democracy should warn us that authoritarianism is on the rise and none of us is safe. We should see Putin’s aggression as a clarion call for us to speak up and act to protect our freedoms before our own government strips us of them.
May God bless us and keep us,
[ii] An arrest record in Russia means one’s job prospects are very dim.
[iii] Hitler’s Germany annexed Austria in 1938, the Sudetenland in 1939 and by 1944, all of Czechoslovakia. Hitler used some of the same false pretexts that Putin is using today to justify his invasions and annexations. After war was declared, Germany invaded, subdued and occupied many nations.
[iv] “Democracy faces perfect storm as the world becomes more authoritarian,” Stockholm, November 11, 2021. https://www.idea.int/news-media/news/democracy-faces-perfect-storm-world-becomes-more-authoritarian
[v] The Brennan Center for Justice, update, January 12, 2022, published December 21, 2021
[vi] The New York Times, Feb. 20, 2022