During last week’s Republican presidential primary debate, NBC News anchor Kristen Welker asked biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramasaway about Ukraine. “Mr. Ramaswamy, are you persuaded by President Zelensky’s urgent new plea?” she asked. “Where do you stand on more funding?”
“I’m absolutely unpersuaded and I’m actually enjoying watching the Ukraine hawks quietly, delicately tiptoe back from their position as this thing has unwound into a disaster,” Ramaswamy replied. “Level with the American people here. Ukraine is not a paragon of democracy.” He then proceeded to level a number of criticisms against the country and its democratic credentials.
Ramaswamy made six accusations against Ukraine and President Volodymyr Zelensky during his minute-and-a-half rejoinder. “This is a country that has banned 11 opposition parties,” he said. “It has consolidated all media into one state TV media arm. That’s not democratic. It has threatened not to hold elections this year unless the U.S. forks over more money. That is not democratic. It has celebrated a Nazi in its ranks, the comedian in cargo pants, a man called Zelensky. Doing it in their own ranks, that is not democratic.”
“The regions of Ukraine that are occupied by Russia right now, the Donbas, Luhansk, Donetsk, these are Russian-speaking regions that have not even been part of Ukraine since 2014,” Ramaswamy continued. He then asked former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley if she wanted to “use U.S. taxpayer money to fund the banning of Christians?”
That’s a lot to unpack. Let’s address the claims one by one.
Banning political parties.
Ramaswamy’s first assertion—that Ukraine has banned 11 opposition parties—is technically true, but missing important context. In March 2022, Zelensky announced a ban on political parties with close ties to Russia, with the Ukrainian government citing security concerns following the Russian invasion of Ukraine weeks earlier. These bans will hold for as long as Ukraine is under martial law, which Zelensky declared on February 22, 2022.
“[The bans] are kind of a no-brainer, of course there are going to be measures taken against these entities,” Peter Dickinson, a Ukraine expert with the Atlantic Council, told The Dispatch Fact Check.
Given Ukraine’s deep and long-standing ties with Russia, many organizations in the country are linked directly to the Kremlin and support the Russian war against Ukraine. “I think anything about Ukrainian politics needs to be understood in the long-term context of Russian imperialism,” Dickinson said. “For hundreds of years, Ukraine was controlled by Russia. And it wasn’t just controlled as a distant colony, it was integrated and it was absorbed.”
These deep ties make the task of rooting out pro-Russian organizations both important and difficult, necessitating the use of wartime political measures to protect the country’s sovereignty. “The political bodies that have been banned were overtly pro-Russian and in many cases had worked with—and were directly tied to—Russia,” Dickinson said. “They were fairly obviously being financed and supported by Russia and were engaged in subversive activities.”
Ukraine has also acted to reduce Russian influence through media consolidation, though some Ukrainians now question its continued necessity. In March 2022, all national news channels were merged into the single United News platform—a 24-hour broadcast news network. Additionally, a law enacted in December 2022 granted new powers to Ukraine’s National Council of Television and Radio Broadcasting to “warn, fine, delicense, and suspend any media outlet, and temporarily extrajudicially block access to non-media online resources,” according to Amnesty International. The National Security and Defense Council also leveraged a 2014 sanctions law to pull three television channels run by Taras Kozak—a pro-Kremlin lawmaker believed to be a close ally of Vladimir Putin—off the air before the war, in February 2021.
The wartime consolidation of media began partly as a practical necessity because of the exodus of civilians from Kyiv, but security concerns were also at the forefront. “There weren’t a lot of people to run TV channels, so there was a practical aspect to it,” Dickinson said. “But fundamentally, it was a national security issue.”
That said, Dickinson also believes that the government’s recent consolidation of media is not necessarily fully justified. “It’s probably the weakest link of all the things they’ve done,” he explained. “I think that’s the one thing people do say here in Ukraine: Why do we still have this, why don’t the TV channels function?”
Ramaswamy’s claim that Zelensky has threatened not to hold elections unless the U.S. provides it with additional funding is baseless. While Zelensky recently ruled out holding a presidential election originally intended for next spring, there is no evidence to suggest that he has demanded additional funding in order to have elections, and the unlikelihood of elections taking place has been clear since the beginning of the conflict. Ukrainian legislation currently bans elections during a time of martial law, so the government would need to pass amending legislation to conduct an election while the war is ongoing. One opposition leader, Serhiy Prytula, has himself said that the focus should be on uniting Ukrainians behind the war effort and that holding an election now would be pointless.
“You’ve got at least 6 or 7 million people displaced outside of Ukraine, you have about 10 million displaced inside Ukraine, you’ve got almost a million people in arms on the front lines, and you’ve got Russian bombings taking place every day all over the country,” Dickinson said. “There is no way they could hold an election campaign, there’s no way they could hold election meetings, and there’s no way they could organize a proper ballot.”
This, too, is not without historical precedent. The U.K., for example, suspended parliamentary elections after the onset of WWII, and resultantly did not have any elections for a ten year period between 1935 and 1945. British elections were similarly suspended during WWI.
Is Zelensky a Nazi?
One of the more shocking moments of debate night came when Ramaswamy seemingly called Zelensky a Nazi. Ukraine “has celebrated a Nazi in its ranks, the comedian in cargo pants, a man called Zelensky,” Ramaswamy said.
His campaign later claimed that Ramaswamy’s words were being taken out of context, and that he had not intended to call Zelensky himself a Nazi. Tricia McLaughlin, a spokesperson for Ramaswamy, told the New York Times that the candidate was instead referring to an incident earlier this year in which the Canadian Parliament—joined by Zelensky—gave a standing ovation to 98-year-old Yaroslav Hunka, a Ukrainian World War II veteran who was later revealed to have served in the Nazi-aligned 14th Waffen Grenadier Division of the SS.
While Zelensky did applaud Hunka alongside the rest of the Canadian House of Commons, any suggestion that he knew of Hunka’s Nazi affiliation—let alone supported him because of it—is unsubstantiated. Anthony Rota, the speaker of Canada’s House of Commons, later said he had not informed either the Canadian government or the Ukrainian delegation of the plan to honor Hunka, and resigned from his post. “This House is above any of us,” he told his fellow lawmakers. “I reiterate my profound regret.”
Adding further to his list of accusations, Ramaswamy claimed that parts of Ukraine currently occupied by Russia—namely the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts that make up the Donbas region in eastern Ukraine—are Russian-speaking regions and have not been part of the Ukrainian state since 2014. Parts of the Donbas now occupied by Russia have in fact been contested since 2014, but Ramaswamy’s remarks fail to acknowledge that the Donbas was illegally occupied. The narrative that the region is legitimately Russian is a central Kremlin talking point, and Ramaswamy is obfuscating the truth by spreading it further.
The Donbas has been partially occupied by Russia since 2014, when conflict broke out between Ukrainian forces, the Russian military, and pro-Russian paramilitary groups within Ukraine. Parts of the Luhansk and Donetsk oblasts fell to Russian-backed separatist movements who declared the breakaway Luhansk People’s Republic and Donetsk People’s Republic. In February 2022, Russia announced its recognition of the two breakaway republics as sovereign states, triggering its invasion of Ukraine under a “special military operation.”
Eventually, Russia announced the full annexation of both oblasts alongside two others—Kherson and Zaporzhzhia—after a series of fraudulent referendums. “I want the Kyiv authorities and their real masters in the West to hear me, so that they remember this,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said in a speech at the time. “People living in Luhansk and Donetsk, Kherson and Zaporizhzhia are becoming our citizens. Forever.”
However, only two close Russian allies—North Korea and Syria—officially recognize the annexations, and Western governments have forcefully denounced Russia’s claims. “To be clear: The results were orchestrated in Moscow and do not reflect the will of the people of Ukraine,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken relayed in an opposing press statement. “The United States does not, and will never, recognize the legitimacy or outcome of these sham referenda or Russia’s purported annexation of Ukrainian territory.”
Ramaswamy then claimed that Ukraine was banning Christians and called on fellow candidate Nikki Haley, a vocal supporter of Ukraine’s war effort, to condemn the practice. “Do you want to use U.S. taxpayer money to fund the banning of Christians?” he asked. “That is actually what’s happening. They’re using the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. They have banned them. The Ukrainian Parliament just did this last week, supported by our dollars.”
Ramaswamy is referring to a preliminary vote taken by the Ukrainian Parliament in late October on a bill, Law 8371, that could ban the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC). The bill—which grants Ukrainian officials the power to investigate connections between Ukrainian and Russian religious groups and ban those with leadership outside of the country—will need to pass a second vote before being approved by Zelensky.
Though the UOC declared independence from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, many members of the church’s clergy have continued to provide support to the Russian military and collaborated with occupying forces. However, the UOC’s influence is declining , and 54 percent of Ukrainian Christians self-identified as belonging to the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in a July 2022 survey by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology. Only 4 percent of Ukraine’s population identified as members of the UOC as of July 2022, down from 18 percent a year earlier.
Like with the political parties referenced above, Ukraine is not “banning” Christians themselves as Ramaswamy claims. It is, however, considering legislation that would allow it to ban particular church organizations that are closely tied to or aiding Russia. This does represent a modest crackdown on parts of the Christian church in the country, but broad freedom to practice religion for Christians is not under threat in Ukraine.
While Ramaswamy does not invent his criticisms of Ukraine’s democratic credentials out of whole cloth, he fails to acknowledge the many reasons why Ukraine has implemented the measures he condemns. He “is attacking Ukraine’s democratic credentials without recognizing that the country is not just in a war, but in an existential struggle,” Dickinson said. “It’s fighting for its life against an enemy that has very deep influence inside Ukraine. Ukraine is really trying to untangle itself from this incredibly complex web of Russian influence and forced Russian integration while at the same time adhering to these democratic principles. It’s embracing democracy for the first time in hundreds of years. It’s a very complicated issue, and these comments really oversimplify it.”
If you have a claim you would like to see us fact check, please send us an email at email@example.com. If you would like to suggest a correction to this piece or any other Dispatch article, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.