One of Vladimir Putin’s cleverest tactics in his propaganda war with the West is his consistent mockery of our woke civilizational crack-up. He has been assisted in this culture war by progressive media figures who insist—just as Putin does—that support for Ukraine is synonymous with support for a whole laundry list of issues, increasing conservative suspicion of Western aid for Ukraine in the conflict. I’ve been writing about this phenomenon for several years prior to the current war, and I believe many social conservative Westerners who know little about Putin, Russia, the state of religious freedom in the Russian Federation, and the historic role of the Russian Orthodox Church are making huge errors in judgement by attempting to force a complicated geopolitical conflict into a culture war mindset.
That said, the Ukrainian government appears to be doing its best to lend credibility to Putin’s culture war propaganda. According to the Kyiv Post, a “transgender journalist from the United States” has now become an official spokesperson of the Territorial Defense Forces of the Ukrainian Armed Forces. Sarah Ashton-Cirillo, a man who identifies as a woman, has received praise for his efforts in statements made by both Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense and Hanna Mailar, a Ukrainian deputy minister of defense. According to Ashton-Cirillo: “Having been in Ukraine for almost 520 days, in a variety of both civilian and military capacities, more than anything I’ve come to appreciate the strength and resilience of the Ukrainian people. Over the last month, as my role has evolved from a zero line infantry soldier to one of the public voices of the Armed Forces of Ukraine, I’ve become ever more grateful for that strength.”
Ashton-Cirillo worked first as a journalist (getting attention from publications such as the USA Today as “the world’s first openly transgender war correspondent.”) Following that, he enlisted in the Armed Forces of Ukraine as a volunteer combat medic and eventually as a junior sergeant. Predictably, Russian bloggers were swift to point out Ashton-Cirillo’s elevation and his claim that he is a woman. Ashton-Cirillo responded: “Part of the narrative used against me by the propagandist war criminals in Russia was focused on my identity. That’s a laughable line of attack since in Ukraine we aren’t fighting for tolerance or acceptance for select groups of people but liberty and liberation for all people.”
But his appointment is revealing. It is understandable that the Ukrainians would select an English-speaking journalist who served in the armed forces as a spokesperson. It seems likely, however, that he was also selected because he identifies as transgender. The reality is that most Western aid these days comes with strings attached, which is why Zelensky has mused about legitimizing same-sex civil unions despite the fact that Ukrainians overwhelmingly oppose such moves. If Ukraine wants entry to NATO and seeks to move into the Western orbit, embrace of LGBT ideology is one of the preconditions many Western leaders will expect—regardless of what Ukrainians actually want. Plenty of people in Eastern Europe have told me that aid packages come with Pride flags attached. The U.S. in particular has become a neo-colonial power, with Pride flags flapping from their embassy at the Vatican and, infamously, in Kabul before the Taliban retook it.
Vladyslav Tsybuliak, a conservative Christian Ukrainian pastor, is upset about the decision. “First and foremost, I think that this is clear propaganda by leftists in Ukraine,” he told me. “Assigning this person to this position is supposed to make us look closer to Europe and European ‘values’ that are currently leftist. This position should not be used as a tool of propaganda when we have a full-scale war underway with an aggressor. Leftist values are being pushed, both quietly and loudly. Another vivid example is the Istanbul Convention, which had a lot of scandals surrounding it. While our soldiers are defending our country, the majority of whom hold traditional values, our government implements these laws and values in the midst of warfare. This is wrong.”
Darina Rebro, a Ukrainian journalist, concurred. The appointment, she told me, “came as a surprise to the majority of Ukrainians. It was especially unexpected because Sarah is not the only American citizen serving in the Ukrainian army. If they needed a person to represent us in the States, there were plenty of other choices, not to mention that many of our defenders have higher education and speak English fluently—and could do that as well. Assigning someone who identifies as transgender to represent the Territorial Defense Forces of Ukraine is obviously a political step. This person has not served in the Ukrainian army for even a year yet, is mostly unknown to the people, and is too controversial for a country that is strongly conservative.”
“The choice is especially cynical, concerning the narratives that gender-ideology activists have been pushing since the beginning of the full-scale invasion,” Rebro observed. “On their platforms, they would post that if you don’t support LGBT+ demands, you are automatically a Russian or pro-Russian person. This is especially unfair considering that the majority of Ukrainian soldiers represent conservative family values and were appalled by the audacity of the claim. There is a huge ideological war happening in Ukraine now, going on simultaneously with the Russian invasion. And Sarah Ashton-Cirillo becoming a spokesperson for the Territorial Defense Forces is just one of its signs.”
Rebro is right—and it appears that many top Ukrainian officials are happy to play into Putin’s narrative in order to score points with Western benefactors. Not so long ago, “Western values” meant freedom of speech, democracy, and religious freedom. Now, most outside the West see our values as synonymous with the LGBT agenda, transgender ideology, and abortion (under the guise of so-called “reproductive rights”). Most Ukrainians reject these values—but more than a few Ukrainian leaders appear prepared to accept them as the price of Western aid in the war of self-defence against Putin’s aggression.