Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky brought a moment of enormous drama to Washington Wednesday, when he gave a virtual address to Congress. Dressed in his trademark military-green t-shirt, pleaded for help as his nation tries to fend off the Russian forces who invaded three weeks ago.
His speech was relatively brief, lasting around 15 minutes, but carried hefty emotional force. Lawmakers gave him a standing ovation at its beginning and at its conclusion.
Here are the major takeaways:
Sticks with no-fly zone
The Ukrainian president is not budging from his demands for the imposition of a “no-fly” zone. It’s an uncomfortable request, not just for President Biden but for American lawmakers in general.
Sympathy for the plight of Ukraine is widespread but so too is wariness about getting sucked into a wider conflict. Such an outcome would seem almost unavoidable if a no-fly zone were imposed since, by its nature, it would require US warplanes to be willing to shoot down their Russian counterparts.
Zelensky, with his life and his country on the line, doesn’t see it that way.
“Is this a lot to ask for, to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people? Is this too much to ask for?” he demanded.
There seems little chance of him changing Biden’s mind, or the consensus on Capitol Hill, on that particular issue.
Zelensky did suggest a slightly less emphatic option — the provision of warplanes and air defenses. Those ideas are the most likely to be at the center of US American political debate in the days to come.
The mere fact of the Ukrainian’s president address may have moved the needle in another way though.
Biden announced later another huge tranche of military aid — valued at around $800 million — just hours after Zelensky finished speaking.
Brings conflict to American public
Zelensky has done everything to try to bring the scale of the crisis home to western lawmakers, and the citizens who elect them.
On Tuesday, he spoke to the Canadian Parliament, addressing that nation’s Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, simply Justin and asking lawmakers to imagine attacks on Toronto or Vancouver.
Last week, addressing the British parliament, Zelensky invoked William Shakespeare and Winston Churchill.
Before Congress he reached for a litany of American references, from the attack on Pearl Harbor to Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
“In your history, you have pages that would enable you to understand Ukrainians,” Zelensky said.
If the US is to maintain sanctions, keep funneling aid, and perhaps get even more deeply involved in Ukraine, the American public need to stay engaged and be willing to pay a price of its own.
Zelensky’s remarks were as much a plea to the American people as to American politicians.
Criticizes Biden Administration
Republicans have become more critical of the Biden administration of late.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on Tuesday that the US president had been guilty of “hesitancy and weakness.” Sen. James Risch complained that aid to Ukraine had been “too little, too late, too slow.”
The administration counters that it is wary of “escalatory” measures that might embroil the US and its allies in a direct war with Russia — something which Biden has said would amount to “World War Three.”
Even as Zelensky paid tribute to Biden’s “sincere commitment” to defending his nation, and to democracy more generally, the Ukrainian president said enough to give an opening to the president’s more hawkish critics.
Zelensky’s push for warplanes was especially powerful and pointed, coming in the wake of an awkward episode in which the White House rebuffed Poland’s offer to send MiG-29 jets to Ukraine via a US military base in Germany.
Referring to such planes, Zelensky said, “You know they exist. You have them, but they are on earth, not in the Ukrainian sky.”
Zelensky also argued that the US needed to show global leadership by supplying more aid.
That suggestion carried the implication that the US would be seen as abdicating its role if it declined more direct assistance.
Calls for a new international body
One of the surprises in the speech was Zelensky’s call for a new international body.
He suggested it should be called “U24” or “United for Peace” that would, in theory, act to stop conflicts immediately.
Whatever the desirability of such an idea, there is no real chance of it being created amid the current crisis, when there is plenty of other international activity going on. Biden is headed to Brussels next week for an extraordinary meeting of NATO members. He will also meet European Union while overseas.
But Zelensky’s proposal may have had another purpose — it distracted from any new scrutiny on the central issue of whether Ukraine could join NATO in the medium-term.
The question is sure to be a pivotal one to the ongoing negotiations between Ukraine and Russia — and the idea of Ukrainian membership of NATO is abhorrent to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Zelensky offered a rhetorical concession on this point on Tuesday when he suggested Ukrainians had to accept that “we cannot enter” the alliance in the short term.
On Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson acknowledged that “the reality of the situation” is that Ukraine will not be a member of NATO “anytime soon.”
Zelensky said nothing germane on the topic during his congressional address.
Zelensky, a former comic actor and TV star, has gained the upper hand over his Russian adversaries in one area ever since the crisis began — communications.
He has pressed his nation’s case in formal addresses like Wednesday’s and also with frequent tweets and social media videos.
While his Wednesday speech was itself impressive, the most emotive moment came when Zelensky paused to show a video.
The short film juxtaposed images of a happier, more relaxed Ukraine with scenes of appalling suffering, many of them involving child victims.
Some lawmakers were reportedly moved to tears by the video — and they won’t have been the only ones.