Fox News’ Bret Baier, who, like Bill O’Reilly before him, has used his perch as a television personality to become a writer of history books (and, like O’Reilly, co-writes these history books with a “collaborator,” formerly known as a ghostwriter), writes on the Fox News website about the “parallels” between Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and the late U.K. Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Baier notes the parallels — both addressed a joint session of Congress during Christmastime even as their nation’s capitals were being bombed; both showed courage in leading their people against an aggressor nation; both were named Time’s Man of the Year; and both took defiant stands against more powerful enemies that were besieging their countries. But these parallels are all superficial. The stakes are far different. Churchill saved Western civilization. Zelenskyy is attempting to save Ukraine’s independence.
To be fair, Baier is not alone in making the Zelenskyy–Churchill comparison. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer reportedly told the Ukrainian leader that he stood “where Winston Churchill stood generations ago … as an ambassador for freedom itself.” The Associated Press has noted that Zelenskyy “evokes comparisons to Churchill for his fierce defense of a country facing an existential crisis.”
Churchill’s understanding of what was at stake in defying Nazi Germany stemmed from his decades-long involvement in the highest level of Britain’s government, including during World War I, and his vast knowledge of British, European, and world history and geopolitics. He understood, and said, that a Nazi triumph — in command of continental Europe and British sea power and allied to expansionist, militaristic Japan — would lead the world into a sinister “new Dark Age.” Churchill had the ability, biographer William Manchester wrote, “to gather the blazing light of history into his prism and then distort it to his ends.”
Unlike Germany in 1941, Russia today does not command the continent of Europe, and, if it succeeds in conquering Ukraine, it will not threaten the European balance of power. The survival of Western civilization is not at stake in the Russia–Ukraine war. That doesn’t mean that Ukrainians are any less brave than Britons were in the 1940s. But it does mean that the defeat of Ukraine will not have the geopolitical consequences that the defeat of Great Britain would have had in 1940–1941.
Zelenskyy is a brave and inspiring leader, but he lacks Churchill’s sense of history. So, too, does Bret Baier. It is often forgotten that after defeating the Axis powers and when faced with a new global challenger in the postwar world, Churchill remarked that it is usually wiser and more prudent to “jaw-jaw” than to “war-war.” Churchill advocated negotiating with Soviet Russia to reestablish the global balance of power. Ukraine was, at that time, it is worth noting, part of the Soviet Union.
The defeat of Ukraine will not have the geopolitical consequences that the defeat of Great Britain would have had in 1940–1941.
The Ukrainian-comedian-turned-statesman’s defiant posture may lead his country to greater suffering and devastation than if he negotiated a ceasefire on terms previously offered by Russia, or some similar terms. Those ceasefire terms would have included autonomy for Ukraine’s Russian-speaking eastern provinces, Ukrainian recognition of Russia’s control of Crimea, and Ukraine’s pledge to avoid joining NATO. But all this “Churchill talk” and continued pledges by Western leaders to supply and fund Ukraine until it achieves “victory” over Russia only serve to stiffen Zelenskyy’s spine and protract a war that Ukraine is unlikely to win.
Instead of listening to the “war hawks” in the Biden administration and among NATO leaders, Zelenskyy would benefit from considering the analysis and advice of Douglas Macgregor, a former Trump Pentagon official, retired Army colonel, and decorated combat veteran, who knows a bit more about war than Biden’s national-security team and a lot more about it than Baier. In his latest piece in the American Conservative, Macgregor warns that the Biden administration’s true believers in this historic cause are drawing “deeply from the well of ideological self-delusion to steel themselves for the final battle” in Ukraine. “Blinken, Klain, Austin, and the rest of the war party,” he writes, “continue to pledge eternal support for Kiev regardless of the cost.” Macgregor compares them to the “best and the brightest” of the 1960s Kennedy–Johnson administration, who were “eager to sacrifice realism to wishful thinking” in Southeast Asia.
“Ukraine,” writes Macgregor, “is losing its war with Russia.” You wouldn’t know this from reading about the war in the cheerleading Western media. “Ukraine’s hospitals and morgues are filled to capacity with wounded and dying Ukrainian soldiers,” Macgregor explains. “Washington’s proxy in Kiev has squandered its human capital and considerable Western aid in a series of self-defeating counter-offensives.” Urging Ukrainians and its leaders to fight to the end, he writes, is “[d]isaster wrapped in rhetoric [that] is not the way to save the people of Ukraine.”
Macgregor’s view that the tragedy in Ukraine is traceable to the decisions made by several successive post–Cold War administrations to expand NATO eastward (including George W. Bush’s proposing to invite Ukraine to join NATO) is unpopular with Ukraine’s supporters in the West, but that doesn’t make it wrong. George F. Kennan, who knew a bit more about Russia than Biden’s foreign-policy team, and a lot more about it than Baier, foretold this tragedy in 1997.
Baier concludes his Fox News opinion piece with soaring, inspirational rhetoric: “Through Churchill’s and Zelenskyy’s words and deeds we are reminded of the power of individual leaders to bring nations to their feet. How else could Great Britain have withstood its lengthy, solitary stand against Hitler—holding on long enough for the United States to join the war? How else could Ukraine, almost universally expected to be doomed, have come to represent the indestructible force that brings freedom to the world?”
Perhaps Baier and the others who portray Zelenskyy as Churchill should read Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, which detailed the horrors committed by Russians, Germans, Poles, Ukrainians, and others in that region of Eastern Europe before, during, and after World War II. Some of those horrors are being repeated today, and Ukrainians are suffering and will suffer even more if the war continues. So, we can admire the bravery of the Ukrainian people even as we urge Ukraine’s leaders to copy not the Churchill of 1940–1941 but instead the Churchill who advocated “jaw-jaw” instead of “war-war.”