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Douglas Andrews / March 23, 2022

Zelensky Mirrors Lincoln … and Putin

It might be that the necessities of wartime leadership make tyrants of us all.

When last we spoke of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, he was standing tall in the face of naked Russian aggression and bravely rallying his people to take up arms and defend their country. He’d also been named the recipient of the Ronald Reagan Freedom Award.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Mount Rushmore: Zelensky, as it turns out, is as flawed as the rest of us. As the UK’s Spectator reports:

The news that Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky has banned eleven opposition parties — including the pro-Russian [party] which holds 44 seats in the 450-member Ukrainian parliament and has spoken out against the Russian invasion — may be the embattled leader’s first major mistake in the month since Putin launched his brutal invasion. Zelensky coupled the decree suspending the activities of the parties, decided on by Ukraine’s national defense and security council, with a ban on private TV stations merging them all into a single state-run TV channel. And that could be his second big error. For Ukraine’s strongest card — the unique selling point that has drawn such sympathy and support from almost the entire democratic world — has been the fact that, in stark contrast to [Vladimir] Putin’s repressive Russian state, it is — or was — a free country.

“The activities of those politicians aimed at division or collusion will not succeed but will receive a harsh response,” said Zelensky in defense of his actions.

Meanwhile, former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev — he the Fredo to Putin’s Michael — could muster only mockery: “The most democratic president of modern Ukraine has taken another step towards the western ideals of democracy … he completely banned any activity of opposition parties in Ukraine. They are not needed! Well done! Keep it up.”

Thus, the Ukrainian president isn’t the paragon of republican virtue that the mainstream media has sold us. But nor does this mean he’s a bad man, or that any real comparison exists between Zelensky and the man who invaded his country — the man who’s been bombing it indiscriminately and with utter disregard for women, children, and the elderly. Zelensky isn’t Putin. To suggest equivalence is lunacy. But he’s not George Washington, either.

While the optics of cracking down on both the media and the political opposition are decidedly bad, Zelensky is still the good guy in this awful story. He’s handled himself resolutely as the wartime leader of a notoriously corrupt country, and it may be that these pro-Russian opposition parties pose a real threat to Ukraine’s wartime survival.

Here, we’re reminded of Abraham Lincoln, who himself trampled numerous civil liberties and constitutional rights, all in an effort to smash a rebellion, win a civil war, and preserve a union. He too was conflicted in his exercise of power. Whether one believes that his actions were wholly, partly, or not at all justified depends largely on one’s view of states’ rights, and largely on one’s view of whether the victors get to write the histories. As for Zelensky, the test will come with an eventual cease-fire. If he’s still alive and in power at that time, it’ll be squarely upon him to undo these encroachments on liberty. Otherwise, his government will have become the sort of corrupt dictatorship that he ran against not so long ago.

“It is hard to criticize the actions of a nation facing annihilation at the hands of a tyrant,” writes legal scholar and constitutional law professor Jonathan Turley. “However, Putin is carrying out precisely this type of anti-free speech, counter-democratic crackdown in Russia. Ukraine has the moral high ground in this struggle and should not surrender that ground through its own acts of political censorship and suppression.”

Let that be the lesson here.

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