Imagine that someone—perhaps a man from Florida, or maybe even a governor of Florida—criticized American support for Ukraine. Imagine that this person dismissed the war between Russia and Ukraine as a purely local matter, of no broader significance. Imagine that this person even told a far-right television personality that “while the U.S. has many vital national interests ... becoming further entangled in a territorial dispute between Ukraine and Russia is not one of them.” How would a Ukrainian respond? More to the point, how would the leader of Ukraine respond?
As it happens, an opportunity to ask that hypothetical question recently availed itself. The chair of the board of directors of The Atlantic, Laurene Powell Jobs; The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg; and I interviewed President Volodymyr Zelensky several days ago in the presidential palace in Kyiv. In the course of an hour-long conversation, Goldberg asked Zelensky what he would say to someone, perhaps a governor of Florida, who wonders why Americans should help Ukraine.
Zelensky, answering in English, told us that he would respond pragmatically. He didn’t want to appeal to the hearts of Americans, in other words, but to their heads. Were Americans to cut off Ukraine from ammunition and weapons, after all, there would be clear consequences in the real world, first for Ukraine’s neighbors but then for others:
If we will not have enough weapons, that means we will be weak. If we will be weak, they will occupy us. If they occupy us, they will be on the borders of Moldova and they will occupy Moldova. When they have occupied Moldova, they will [travel through] Belarus and they will occupy Latvia, Lithuania, and Estonia. That’s three Baltic countries which are members of NATO. They will occupy them. Of course [the Balts] are brave people, and they will fight. But they are small. And they don’t have nuclear weapons. So they will be attacked by Russians because that is the policy of Russia, to take back all the countries which have been previously part of the Soviet Union.
And after that, if there were still no further response? Then, he explained, the struggle would continue:
When they will occupy NATO countries, and also be on the borders of Poland and maybe fight with Poland, the question is: Will you send all your soldiers with weapons, all your pilots, all your ships? Will you send tanks and armored vehicles with your young people? Will you do it? Because if you will not do it, you will have no NATO.
At that point, he said, Americans will face a different choice: not politicians deciding whether “to give weapons or not to give weapons” to Ukrainians, but instead, “fathers and mothers” deciding whether to send their children to fight to keep a large part of the planet, filled with America’s allies and most important trading partners, from Russian occupation.
But there would be other consequences too. One of the most horrifying weapons that Russia has used against Ukraine is the Iranian-manufactured Shahed drone, which has no purpose other than to kill civilians. After these drones are used to subdue Ukraine, Zelensky asked, how long would it be before they are used against Israel? If Russia can attack a smaller neighbor with impunity, regimes such as Iran’s are sure to take note. So then the question arises again: “When they will try to occupy Israel, will the United States help Israel? That is the question. Very pragmatic.”
Finally, Zelensky posed a third question. During the war, Ukraine has been attacked by rockets, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles—“not hundreds, but thousands”:
So what will you do when Russia will use rockets to attack your allies, to [attack] civilian people? And what will you do when Russia, after that, if they do not see [opposition] from big countries like the United States? What will you do if they will use rockets on your territory?
And this was his answer: Help us fight them here, help us defeat them here, and you won’t have to fight them anywhere else. Help us preserve some kind of open, normal society, using our soldiers and not your soldiers. That will help you preserve your open, normal society, and that of others too. Help Ukraine fight Russia now so that no one else has to fight Russia later, and so that harder and more painful choices don’t have to be made down the line.
“It’s about nature. It’s about life,” he said. “That’s it.”
Our full report from Ukraine will appear in a forthcoming issue of The Atlantic.