“If you want to be part of the resistance against Russian disinformation,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger said, “join the fellas.”
It’s an admittedly unorthodox way to begin an interview with the outgoing Republican congressman, one of two on the House select committee investigating Jan. 6 and an outspoken opponent of former President Donald Trump.
But then, Kinzinger is equally outspoken about his support for Ukraine. He is the first and only sitting U.S. legislator to enlist in the “North Atlantic Fella Organization,” or NAFO, an increasingly influential online army of activists who savagely mock pro-Kremlin trolls and Russian diplomats on Twitter and are instantly recognizable by their individually stylized or militarized Shiba Inu avatars.
Kinzinger’s own Twitter profile picture proudly displays his bespoke “fella” in a jumpsuit manning a toy-sized F-18 fighter jet. A former U.S. Air Force pilot who had tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, he doesn’t mind that playful rendering. “F-18 are Navy planes and I don’t like the Navy,” he teases.
Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov briefly adopted a cartoon dog avatar as his Twitter profile picture, and on Aug. 28 the ministry tweeted its gratitude to the grassroots organization, featuring a Ukrainian fella with an “oh my” expression standing in front of a High Mobility Rocket Artillery Systems (HIMARS) launch. There’s even NAFO merchandise, some of which has already shown up on the battlefield in Ukraine.
“This will be a marker in history in terms of countering a hostile state’s lies and propaganda,” Kinzinger said of NAFO. “I’d love it if we could do that with op-eds in the Wall Street Journal and New York Times. But it’s a meme world. Trump was elected on memes, and now NAFO is using that weapon brilliantly against the Russians.”
For someone about to be out of a job come January after 12 years in Congress, Kinzinger sounds incredibly upbeat, even jaunty, on the phone. “When I got back from Iraq and ran for Congress, I thought: If we’re going to ask 19-year-olds to die for my country, I have to be willing to give my career up for it.”
A year ago, Democrats eliminated his Republican-leaning district in Illinois, although his chances of winning if they hadn’t were greatly diminished anyway. He’s been vocal in denouncing Trump’s baseless claims of electoral fraud in the 2020 presidential election. Kinzinger voted to impeach Trump last year for “incitement to insurrection,” one of just 10 Republicans in the House to do so.
And his agreement to join that lawmaking body’s Jan. 6 committee investigating how a legion of Trump-supporting rioters violently raided the seat of American government — the only other Republican besides fellow lame duck Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., to do so — made him a heretic to members of his own party still in thrall to the former president. Trump has taunted him as “Cryin’ Adam Kinzinger.”
The congressman won’t answer any questions about forthcoming findings from the Jan. 6 committee, including about the review of “thousands of exhibits” from Secret Service agents, many of whom used their personal cellphones to communicate on the day of the insurrection.
“There’s this expectation that we’re going to announce charges against Trump,” he said. “That’s not our job. This committee — we’ve proven our case, done our job. Now the torch is handed to the [Department of Justice].”
What hopes does Kinzinger have for the GOP, which is widely expected to retake the House of Representatives in the November midterms? Not very high ones, with or without its scandal-ridden and twice-impeached standard bearer.
“Trump can go away and it won’t matter much,” Kinzinger said. “Others have learned from him. ... Either the Republican Party dies or it comes back to some modicum of normalcy. If the latter happens, it’ll take 10 years. Either an angry generation passes away or a charismatic leader that can pull people into a different vision emerges. Trump was charismatic, much as I hate to admit it.”
Asked if not having to answer to a constituency has made his tongue a bit looser, Kinzinger admits it has. “Prior to making the mental decision I wasn’t running again, I filtered stuff,” he said. “If something pissed me off, I’d ask if I needed to say so. You have to pick your battles in politics. But the night of the election, when Trump said it was stolen or going to be stolen — that was a defining moment. That is the kind of thing that can mark the complete downfall of a civilization, the trust in democracy that’s torn out.”
One of the reasons for Kinzinger’s optimism is the unexpected survival of a democracy under existential threat on another continent.
A member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, he’s been pleasantly surprised at Western resolve on continuing military support for Ukraine even in the face of Vladimir Putin’s latest mobilization order (far from “partial,” as the Russian president characterized it) and continued nuclear blackmail. Ukraine’s unannounced but remarkable counteroffensive in Kharkiv, in the northeast, in which it has so far recaptured more than 1,428 square miles of terrain in weeks, has been a shot in the arm, particularly for Europe.
“Before the counteroffensive, people were fatigued,” Kinzinger said. “There was talk of a frozen conflict. The counteroffensive woke people up again.”
Kinzinger isn’t just struck by how well the Ukrainians have fought but by how badly the Russians have, despite being heralded as the second-best army in Europe. “We saw how they used Javelins and Stingers early on, and the most mind-boggling thing is that the Russians never gained air superiority. In some places, the Ukrainians have it.”
One result of the war, he said, is that it’s a windfall for U.S. and NATO intelligence about Russia’s true capabilities and will dramatically alter, if not upend, some of the core strategic assumptions of the past several decades. A few years ago the congressman traveled to Latvia, a NATO member state, where military officials briefed him on the likely outcome of a Russian invasion there, one that would automatically trigger Article 5, the organization's collective security guarantee.
“‘The Russians will take down all our comms,’ I was told. The Latvians were practicing signaling to each other with flags like old cavalry officers. They were going to be mere speed bumps before Russian tanks rolled deeper into Europe. Yet where’s all this electronic warfare genius the Russians were meant to have? Their drone capability? It just didn’t show up in Ukraine. I don’t know if we were able to counter that in the last five years or they just never had it to begin with. The T-80 tank the Ukrainians captured — it looks like an old tank with a new shell on it.”
Russia’s Potemkin army, the result of effective external propaganda as much as internal corruption and mismanagement, is one reason Kinzinger believes the United States and its allies can afford to bolster security assistance to Kyiv. “The escalation argument: I’m over it. It’s like a husband saying, ‘If you leave me, I’ll hit you harder and so you can’t go.’ We should stop self-deterring like this because all the evidence points to the Russians not being able to do much about anything. HIMARS aren’t even our best shit, and they’re helpless to counter them.”
The latest putative Kremlin red line is on long-range artillery known as the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), with 500-pound warheads that can be fired from HIMARS and travel as far as 190 miles. Thus far the White House has (at least publicly) ruled out sending such missiles to Ukraine for fear they’d be used to strike inside Russian territory, a fear Kinzinger believes is misplaced: “First of all, it’s disrespectful to the Ukrainians, who’ve been incredibly disciplined and faithful in not using U.S. weapons to strike Russia. Second, it’s not like they’re going to invade Moscow.”
There’s been some speculation as to how the Ukrainians managed to strike the Saki air base, in occupied Crimea, last month, destroying more than half of Russia’s Black Sea Fleet naval aviation group in the course of an hour. Valerii Zaluzhnyi, the commander in chief of Ukraine’s armed forces, recently claimed in print that the attack was a “series of successful missile strikes,” leading to further speculation that perhaps Ukraine already has or had a limited stockpile of ATACMS, which could have been provided either covertly by the U.S. or inconspicuously by another country.
Kinzinger wouldn’t comment on the Saki operation, but he did venture to say that “if we send ATACMS, there’s a benefit in doing it a little off the record; a certain number with preapproved targets. The Ukrainians can do a good job with a small supply of them. There are strategic supply lines 200 miles from the frontline they can easily hit. So I wish the administration wouldn’t counter-message on this question.”
One weapon system the U.S. did provide to Ukraine, in June with no publicity or fanfare, was the HARM anti-radiation missile, which Ukrainian technicians have managed to jury-rig so as to be fireable from their native MiG-29s and Su-27s. The HARM, according to Kinzinger, “turned the tide of the war” in Ukraine’s favor, “tracking and destroying Russian radars unimpeded.”
Kinzinger is also a proponent of training Ukrainian air force pilots on F-16s immediately. “I’ve met with some of their MiG pilots and our F-16 pilots," he said. "It’ll take three months to get the Ukrainians cross-trained to a competent degree. Then maybe Egypt can give Ukraine the airframes and we’ll backfill their inventory.”
Even if the war ends tomorrow, Kinzinger said, Ukraine will need a Western fleet of fighter jets to fend off another Russian attack, which he believes is inevitable — assuming Putin survives his calamitous invasion.
“There’s no doubt in five or 10 years he’ll try again.”