The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Zelenskys are in Vogue. That makes them smart, not silly.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a joint news conference with Lithuania's president in Kyiv on July 28. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)
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It’s hard to imagine a more foolish reason to reject support for Ukraine than the fact that the nation’s desperate leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, was photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue.

And yet, the internet being the internet, this is precisely what happened. Apparently, taking time for a portrait session in between combating brutal Russian efforts to dismember his country and destroy its people is an argument for wrapping up American support for the Ukrainian war effort.

The supposed unseriousness of Zelensky — who defied predictions that he would flee when Russian tanks rolled in — has been an undercurrent of the arguments made by Russian-friendly apparatchiks.

How are we supposed to take this guy seriously when he’s doing photo shoots with Ben Stiller? How can he possibly lead his country when he’s addressing the Grammys? Why are world leaders doing photo ops with him when there are more pressing concerns, such as inflation in their own countries or rising energy prices?

Set aside the absolutely lunatic idea that a world leader cannot meet with celebrities in the midst of a global crisis — a notion the ghosts of Winston Churchill and Franklin D. Roosevelt would, in all likelihood, dispute. Let’s get real: Zelensky is meeting with Western celebrities and appearing in celebrity-focused magazines because that is the only way to keep the crisis in his country at the forefront of the American public’s mind.

That’s because if the American public is not presented with a celebrity or an influencer or a model of some renown in conjunction with a story, it is likely to stop paying attention.

We have remarkably poor attention spans. And, honestly, the news out of Ukraine is a little stale. The plot has gone on a hair too long. Needed some second act trims, really: You can’t expect us to care about yet another Russian atrocity, can you? Felt like the whole thing was treading water there for a while. What is this, a Netflix show? Cut the bloat.

That’s the cold, calculated truth. Without support from the West, Ukraine will fall; its borders will be redistributed at the whim of a Russian tyrant; and its people will suffer horrors they’ve not seen since the height of the Holodomor, when the Soviet Union embarked on a campaign of forced starvation in Ukraine.

Accusing Zelensky of unseriousness is merely projection on the behalf of the American people: If anyone is to be considered unserious, it’s us. That he is taking advantage of our unseriousness is not a strike against him but a reminder that Zelensky understands the power of optics in modern war.

I’m almost less offended by the Russian stooges who simply hate Ukrainian independence and hope to see the country torn asunder in order to demonstrate that the Russian bear should not be trifled with. Their ugly opinions are to be expected.

What is more worrisome are those, particularly those on the right, who have at least nominally supported Ukraine — or, at least, haven’t actively opposed American aid being sent to the beleaguered nation and its people — but are so turned off by the fact that Zelensky would appear in Vogue, a known habitat of the celebritum liberalis, that, well, it makes them reconsider the whole endeavor.

If your support for Western democracy is so decrepit that it collapses the moment one of its leaders steps in front of Leibovitz’s Hasselblad, then it really doesn’t matter what happens in Ukraine: The West is already lost.

Instead of getting mad at a desperate politician trying to save his country from destruction, perhaps you can redirect your agita toward the country that is reducing Ukrainian cities to rubble and forcibly relocating its people to all corners of the Russian landmass. There are villains in this conflict. Volodymyr Zelensky isn’t among them.

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