Maureen Dowd: While Putin shrinks, Zelenskiy soars

No matter what happens, the Russian president will be a loser with no moral stature

Myron Cohen, a garment district silk salesman turned popular comedian in the Ed Sullivan era, loved to tell this chestnut:

Picture a skinny little guy, a shrimp, a nothing. He walks into a lumber camp looking for a job. The foreman is sceptical, so the shrimp steps up and fells a towering oak in 90 seconds.

“Where’d you learn that?” says the foreman.

“In the Sahara Forest,” replies the guy.


“You mean the Sahara Desert,” the foreman corrects.

“Sure, now,” the guy says.

Hubris guided Vladimir Putin's malevolent and maladroit invasion of Ukraine. As the Associated Press pointed out, US military officials assumed Russia would deploy electronic and cyber warfare to blind and paralyse Ukrainian air defences and communications. But the Russians did not take control of Ukrainian air space when they launched their attack.

Putin was cocksure, dismissing Volodymyr Zelenskiy as a shrimp, a nothing. But Zelenskiy has shown the world what true stature is.

Putin has always had a Napoleon complex, puffing out his bare chest on horseback; fishing shirtless in Siberia; winning staged judo and hockey displays. But Zelenskiy understands that stature is not about phoney macho photo shoots.

Stature is a physical quality, but, more important, it is a human and moral quality. Keats was barely over 5 feet, but look at his spiritual size. Our military leaders have lately been quoting Napoleon, who said, “The moral is to the physical as three to one.”

We have seen this with the Ukrainians, who are not only courageously resisting the Russians but also launching counteroffensives.

Parking tanks

As the New York Times reported, the number of Russian casualties has hurt morale; our intelligence reports have described Russian soldiers simply parking their tanks and wandering into the woods.

Putin doesn’t realise what the world knows: You don’t show your muscularity by razing cities, by bombing a maternity hospital, a boarding school for the visually impaired, a bread line, a community centre and a shelter painted with a message in Russian pleading that children are inside.

What kind of monster treats the word "CHILDREN" as an invitation to kill? This just proves that the Russian dictator is, as President Joe Biden and his secretary of state contended, a war criminal.

You don’t show your power by starting a war that reveals how weak and mediocre your army is and strengthens European bonds when your goal is to divide and weaken Europe. No matter what happens in Ukraine, Putin will be a loser with no moral stature and Zelenskiy will have towering moral stature.

Donald Trump, who called Putin's barbaric strategy "genius" and "savvy" after spending four years legitimising that malefactor, also comes out a loser. Trump is stuck on the fringe of his party, sharing the wrong side of a moral divide with Tucker Carlson, JD Vance, Madison Cawthorn and Marjorie Taylor Greene.

Trump and Putin, what a pair, shrinking in stature in the eyes of the world. Tiny, tiny Trump and cruel fool Putin. The corrupt, paranoid germaphobes love surrounding themselves with sycophants, conjuring delusional worlds and giving unhinged rants.

Putin let loose on those who question his misbegotten war: “Any people, and even more so the Russian people, will be able to distinguish true patriots from scum and traitors and simply spit them out like a midge that accidentally flew into their mouths. Spit out on the pavement.”

He even went after his pals, the oligarchs, "who can't do without foie gras, oysters or the so-called gender freedoms" in Miami or the French Riviera.

Sowing seeds

Trump and Putin sowed the seeds of their own destruction. They wanted all of the attention and credit. Now they deserve all of the blame. Grandiosity and fantasy worlds will trip up these poisonous authoritarians. Neither man has a democratic bone in his body. And both think they know better than anyone else.

“When you have an autocrat who’s been in power for too long, they don’t listen to people anymore, and this war was afflicted by very bad decision making,” Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a historian who teaches at New York University, said on MSNBC. This has left Putin vulnerable and humiliated before Russian elites and the world, she said. But it has also, parlously, left him without an off-ramp “because autocrats don’t negotiate”.

Stephen Kotkin, a professor of history and international affairs at Princeton, told the New Yorker's David Remnick that the Russians have a fractured identity. Culturally and scientifically, they are a world-class power. But economically and politically, they have a hard time matching the West, so "they resort to coercion".

“The worst part of this dynamic in Russian history is the conflation of the Russian state with some personal ruler,” Kotkin said. “Instead of getting the strong state that they want to manage the gulf with the West, they instead get a personalist regime. They get a dictatorship, which usually becomes a despotism.”

Zelenskiy spoke to a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday, comparing the terror in Ukrainian skies to the death hailed down from the skies on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and on New York and Washington on 9/11. He also showed a devastating video that brought tears to lawmakers’ eyes.

Underlining his role as David to Putin's Goliath, Zelenskiy said, "Strong doesn't mean big." Strong means supporting human rights and freedom and demanding the right to die when "your time comes and not when it's wanted by someone else, by your neighbour". – This article originally appeared in The New York Times