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The acute problem with the U.S. involvement in Ukraine is the conflict is just not exciting enough. There’s no obvious evidence of Captain America riding to the rescue for the folks watching back home.
Barbara Rafaeli, who spent more than 40 years as an executive and field producer for ABC, Bloomberg and CNN, packaging bloodstained conflicts from the Lebanese Civil War to the Balkan Wars for American television screens, says: “Today’s audiences want to rally around a Marvel Superhero… American viewers are impatient. They want to see Ukraine win already.”
Nearly three years into the war, the Star Spangled Man With a Plan remains confined to barracks. All the public gets when an American-supplied bomb blows up a Russian ammo dump is a lot of smoke and that’s about it.
The closest thing to a superhero in Ukraine is President Volodymyr Zelensky. He’s now even being marketed like a Marvel star on the front of cereal boxes (ZelenskyO's are now being shipped to the U.S.).
This week he is scheduled to address the UN before heading to Washington to lobby Congress into approving a $21 billion aid package. And Zelensky needs all the exposure he can get. The whimsical actor turned warrior statesman is on the cusp of losing his zest appeal. This is to be expected. Arthur Schlesinger Jr., an Assistant Secretary of State and Special Assistant to President John F. Kennedy, once made the prescient observation that “all wars are popular for the first thirty days.”
“We’re seeing a war that’s the same thing over and over and over again,” says veteran foreign correspondent Vivienne Walt, who’s spent the past two years reporting the conflict in Ukraine for Fortune. “TV viewers and readers don’t have the ability to follow the narrative arc of this war because there’s no arc anymore. It’s flat, and when you don’t have change, you don’t have a news story.”
Any economist could tell you that the war is in need of rebranding. If not, Zelensky is in danger of ousting Starbucks as a compelling illustration of the law of diminishing marginal utility, which explains that as a person consumes more of an item, the satisfaction they derive from the product wanes, particularly when the cost goes up.
War is hell. Anastasiya Shapochkina, director of the foreign policy institute Eastern Circles and a lecturer on political economics at Sciences Po in Paris, says the war in Ukraine is also a consumer product and, according to recent polls, an increasingly unpopular one.
Some 55 percent of Americans now say that Congress should not increase funding to counter the belligerence of Vladimir Putin. Economists call that a profound downtrend; at the start of the war in February 2022, similar polling showed upwards of 62 percent of the public insisting Congress should do more to help Zelensky beat back Vladimir Putin.
“These polls bring us to the most dangerous moment in the war, a breaking point: consumers must decide the true cost of living in a democracy,” Shapochkina cautions. “A vacuum in global leadership will be created the moment America steps back from supporting Ukraine, and it will be filled by fascist regimes, perhaps even in America itself—and that’s the most hazardous outcome of all.”
Former President Donald Trump could return to the Oval Office after next year’s election and he has shown no great love for defending Ukraine, or for upholding democratic ideals.
In Dec. 2022, for instance, he called for “the termination of all rules, regulations, and articles, even those found in the Constitution” “Countering Russia’s threat to democracy must be left in the hands of America’s elite political decision makers, wise men and women who pay no attention to uninformed populist sentiment,” Shapochkina says.
Now that is a tough sell, and a sobering reality check on how America and its allies have been marketing the biggest and most multifaceted slugfest in Europe since World War Two. The thing is, though, the conventional attitudes of American consumers—as a wad—have been desensitized by Kyiv’s omnipresent public-relations push—and Moscow’s slick propaganda counteroffensive, frequently with the enthusiastic assistance of popular American television personalities.
In the year since Zelensky’s last visit to Washington, when both chambers of Congress gave him a standing ovation worthy of Davy Crockett, he has found it increasingly difficult to convince enough Republican lawmakers to continue underwriting his cause. “Ukraine is not the 51st state,” bullied MAGA Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. “We have mud all over our face. We’re $31 trillion in debt. The U.S. needs to be pushing for peace in Ukraine, not funding a proxy war with Russia.”
On the other side of the aisle, Democrats are growing queasy about collateral damage. “We risk losing our moral leadership,” California Representative Barbara Lee said shortly after President Biden in July deployed cluster bombs—prohibited by more than 100 countries—to the Ukrainian battlefield.
That’s the America Zelensky is walking into this time. Washington’s mood has changed, the ennui has set in. Can he persuade embattled and embittered lawmakers to keep funding the fight against Russian aggression? This might be Zelensky’s last chance. A splash of cold reality couldn’t do anyone much harm.
The variety-show of videos, fashions, pufferies, and let’s not forget “official pronouncements” about the war have made us all prisoners of a looping, merchandised, and often gas-lit landscape that the American public is unwilling to die for.
“The ability of Russian propaganda to influence American social media has been phenomenal,” says Shapochkina. “The European public widely understands that if Putin takes Ukraine, he will not stop there. The American public doesn’t care, and their disinterest will only grow until—if and when—their husbands, wives, sons and daughters are there, too.”
Captain America, metaphorically or otherwise, has not voiced any intention to take on the Kremlin. But now, after nearly three years of chronicling the anger and impatience of Ukrainians living under Putin’s jackboot, alongside covering America’s understandable reluctance to assemble the Avengers, a closer examination of the combat cocktail party chatter at off-record diplomatic soirees and military picnics can perhaps provide further insight.
The principal theme of these conversations with intelligence officers, war planners and Ukrainian politicians is thermonuclear and quarrelsome:
Is Ukraine’s fight for survival the first righteous war since World War Two and, if so, shouldn’t America fully commit to putting Putin’s fascist and genocidal enterprise out of business?
“The correct answer is ‘yes’ and ‘yes,’” says my go-to Western intelligence operative, who spends his days poring over classified reports from the battlefield and maintains that the Chinese are certain to keep Putin’s finger off the nuclear trigger.
“Privately, the hawks and the doves know this is a just war, but they’ll never send American forces,” he says. “Ukrainians will continue to die, so that’s a loss. The compromise, if you want to call it one, is for roughly 5 percent of America’s defense budget, we have permanently crippled Russia.”
The arguably macabre conventional war wisdom, adds a former NATO officer currently advising the Ukrainian military, is that Zelensky has already defeated Russia. “The victory is certainly not in terms of the terrible ongoing and future Ukrainian casualties, but in the geopolitical defanging of Russia,” he says. “Ukraine is in a shambles, facing large casualties, no seaport availability, agricultural production way down, and tremendous future reconstruction costs. It only looks like a defeat.”
If that evaluation echoes the infamous “we had to destroy the village in order to save it” quote given by an unnamed U.S. Army major after his troops obliterated the town of Ben Tre during the Vietnam War, well, consider why many in the Western intelligence community maintain that America is winning this one:
“The Russians can’t deliver the minimally required ammo and water to their front lines, and they haven’t started to deliver any of the cold weather gear needed for winter,” the U.S. intelligence officer explains. “Then we have the demographic meltdown—the Russians have shrunk to 3.5 million 20-24-year-old males. Some 300,000 of their soldiers just came back in body bags or legless. Best news of all for the rest of the world, the Russians at the moment aren’t producing anymore Russian babies.”
Wicked or righteous, the only certainty in this bloody, wretched war is the Ukrainians will never surrender, with Zelensky taking his cue from what Captain America told U.S. Secretary of State Thunderbolt Ross on film during a similar situation: “I’m not looking for forgiveness and I’m way past asking permission,” Cap said. “If you want to stand in our way, we’ll fight you, too.”