Tucker Carlson established himself as a purveyor of piffle about the war in Ukraine long ago, but one of his recent segments on Fox News is especially egregious. Here, Carlson concentrates on arguing that the Ukrainian government is a dictatorship bent on oppressing Christians. This is not, however, his only claim, and we will get to it shortly. The monologue is padded with vague gestures towards other forms of supposed authoritarianism, such as the total falsehood that Ukraine’s opposition parties have all been banned.
In particular, the pundit assures us that Ukrainians cannot consume media that “Ukrainians cannot listen to media outlets that criticize the Zelensky government,” a statement nearly exactly opposite to the truth. Ever since his election, with the possible exception of the panicked period immediately following Putin’s invasion, Volodymyr Zelensky and his government have been relentlessly scrutinized and critiqued by Ukraine’s media and parliament. It is indicative that presidential advisor Oleksiy Arestovych frequently uses his regularly scheduled live streams with Russian dissident Mark Feygin to address common criticisms of the government’s policies.
The following are just a few examples of the outright antagonism that parts of the Ukrainian media manifest towards the Zelensky government. Oleksiy Goncharenko, a member of erstwhile Zelensky rival Petro Poroshenko’s party, has accused the president of neglecting to prepare the country properly for Russia’s invasion and of condescending to his people. Goncharenko has his own daily commentary segment on the television channel Pryamyy. Following the announcement that Zelensky would not attend the G20 summit in November in person, the head of state was criticized on Channel 5, a television channel formerly owned by Poroshenko.
Military and political commentator Taras Chornvol has practically carved out a niche as an opponent of Zelensky. After firings of high-ranking Ukrainian officials made international news, Chornovol lambasted the government on Channel 5, accusing it of cronyism in favor of Head of the Presidential Administration Andriy Yermak. He also identified the three major Ukrainian channels that tend to be critical of Zelensky: Channel 5, Espreso, and Pryamyy. This is illustrative of how Ukraine’s media landscape looks outside of Tucker Carlson’s fantasy world: much like in the United States, one group of outlets generally agrees with the current government, another often disagrees. On December 8, 2022, around the time of Carlson’s remarks, Chornovol echoed Goncharenko in denouncing Zelensky for botching military preparations despite American warnings of the looming Russian invasion, and even suggested that the president had been manipulated by “moles.” He was being interviewed by Pryamyy host Olena Kurbanova.
All this exposes the most fundamental intellectual con behind commentary like Carlson’s, which consists in equating the whole country of Ukraine with one man, its president, and then attacking that man. Of the American media’s alleged idolization of Zelensky, the Fox News bigwig has this to say: “Americans fell hard for president Zelensky. They all did. Even in rural areas that voted against Joe Biden, you saw Ukrainian flags hanging from mailboxes.” The unspoken, and deeply authoritarian, assumption is clear: the only reason why one would sympathize with an invaded nation is admiration for its head of state.
Now for Carlson’s comments on religion. The central claim here is this: “Last week, [Zelensky] announced his plan to ban an entire religion, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and to seize its property.” Naturally, this is not true. Although most Ukrainians wanted a ban of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in an April survey, and an official petition with 25,000 signatures demanded the same, the decree the president ended up signing was more restrained. In a nutshell, it merely submitted for parliamentary approval a general ban on religious organizations that get orders from Russia and ordered a two-month investigation as to whether this applied to the UOC-MP. The document explicitly requires the proscription to conform to “norms of international law in the sphere of freedom of conscience and Ukraine’s obligations in connection with entry into the Council of Europe.”
The basic premise of what Carlson is saying, that US foreign policy should uphold religious freedom, is obviously correct. However, this concern is only applicable when religious freedom is actually at risk, which, in this case, it is not — at least not from Ukraine. The problem with the UOC is that it evidently remains, despite its denials, an appendage of the Russian Orthodox Church and its Moscow Patriarchy. Said institutions appear to have been consistently instrumentalized by the Soviet government for its political purposes. This relationship has continued after the Soviet Union fell: according to political science professor Alexander Motyl, “the Russian Orthodox Church[ is ]well known for its slavish relationship with the imperial, Soviet, and Russian states.”
In other words, the root of the issue is that Russia, not Ukraine, has destroyed religious freedom by keeping certain Orthodox Christian institutions subordinate to its despotic state. If anything, restricting the operations of superficially religious groups weaponized by the Russian government should strengthen religious freedom by weakening the Russian government’s stranglehold on the world of Orthodox Christendom.
While the issue may seem abstract, its effects are quite palpable. Law enforcement investigations and witness testimony from across the country point to a pattern of collaboration between the UOC-MP’s clergy and the Russian occupation forces. Existing human-rights law clearly allows for certain forms of religious activity to be restricted when public safety is at stake. As journalist and MP Mykola Knyazhitsky points out, Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights states that the liberty “to manifest one’s religion or beliefs” can be placed under “limitations […] necessary in a democratic society in the interests of public safety, for the protection of public order,” or for certain other reasons. Said article is “integrated” into Ukraine’s constitution, adds Knyazhitsky. A UN document discussing the relevant international law notes that article 18(3) of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights allows for the same kind of restriction. Of course, the words “to manifest” are key: according to the document, “the internal element of religious freedom, i.e. freedom to adopt a religion or a belief (or, indeed, non-belief), cannot be restricted.” However, this is a line that the Ukrainian actions clearly do not cross.
Tucker Carlson speaks of basic public-safety measures as of flagrant examples of government overreach. “Zelensky’s [sic] secret police have raided monasteries,” he says, with apparent outrage. While calling Ukraine’s security services “secret police” certainly sounds spooky, it is unclear what is so fundamentally unacceptable about searches of religious buildings. Just a few months earlier, it was reported that “[t]he FBI ha[d] raided four churches in connection with an investigation into alleged abuses of the GI Bill education program by House of Prayer Christian Church’s bible seminaries.” It turns out that the modern world does not operate by the rules of pre-revolutionary France. In the United States, as in all healthy societies, the fact of being a religious institution does not exempt one from the law of the land.
Near the beginning of the segment, Carlson recalls, with obvious disapproval, comparisons between Volodymyr Zelensky and George Washington. Perhaps a more relevant analogy would be to Abraham Lincoln, who suspended Habeas Corpus in 1861, in the midst of the Civil War. This is not to say that the Ukrainian government’s actions have been akin to that decision, but one does wonder how much pearl-clutching the television star would have performed over Lincoln’s bold move.
Originally published on Substack.