Zelensky’s tenacity and defiance epitomize the nation he leads
This story was adapted from the Dec. 22 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email on American politics for global readers. Click here to read past issues and subscribe.
If ever a leader epitomized his nation, this is it Vladimir Zelensky.
Unbroken, defiant, civilian, forced to wear green military clothing, the Ukrainian president spent Wednesday in Washington, DC, on his first daring trip outside the country since Russia’s brutal, unprovoked invasion in February. He expressed heartfelt gratitude for America’s multibillion-dollar weapons and munitions — but made it clear he would never stop asking for more.
Appearing with extraordinary symbolism in the White House with President Joe Biden and before a joint session of Congress, Zelensky also brings sobering news. A long, bloody battle for freedom, democracy and ultimately the survival of a nation Russian President Vladimir Putin says has no right to exist — a battle for which it’s not yet clear whether the free world has the stomach for — is far from over.
The comic actor-turned-war hero has effectively put the fate of millions of Ukrainians in the hands of American lawmakers, taxpayers and families at a time when there is growing skepticism among the new Republican House majority about the cost of US involvement.
In the emotional climax of his speech on the floor of the House of Representatives, Zelensky presented Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris with a Ukrainian flag that he retrieved from the hottest battlefront in Bakhmut on Tuesday.
“Our heroes … have asked me to bring this flag to you, the United States Congress, the members of the House of Representatives and the senators whose decisions can save millions of lives,” he said.
“So let those decisions be made. May this flag stay with you.
This imagery encapsulates Zelensky’s mastery of historical allusion and public relations theater. He argues that the war in Ukraine is at a turning point – drawing an analogy to the Battle of Saratoga, a rallying point for a superior army against a superpowered enemy in America’s Revolutionary War. He recalled the heroism of American soldiers dug into icy foxholes at the Battle of the Bulge during Christmas 1944, which thwarted Nazi Germany’s last-ditch effort to repel the Allied liberation of Europe. And he quoted wartime President Franklin D. Roosevelt to promise a sure, hard-won victory for freedom.
“The American people, in their righteous might, will win to absolute victory,” Zelensky said, quoting FDR. “The Ukrainian people will also win, absolutely.”
His broader message was that Ukraine’s battle is not just some flashpoint over an ancient grudge on the fringes of the old Soviet empire. It was that his fight was America’s and everyone’s—to contain tyranny and save global democracy.
“The battle is not just for the life, liberty and security of Ukrainians or any other nation that Russia is trying to conquer,” he said. “This struggle will determine what kind of world our children and grandchildren and their children and grandchildren will live in.”
Like any accomplished politician, Zelensky speaks to multiple audiences at once.
— To Putin, who thought he would oust Zelensky and his nation in a February blitzkrieg, he sent a signal of heroic resistance embraced by the U.S. — after flying to Washington on a U.S. Air Force jet, trying to show that the Russians are now leading a war that can never be won.
— To the Americans, Zelensky expressed deep gratitude for tens of billions of dollars in weapons and aid offered and forthcoming. Implicitly, he argues that they cannot abandon this brutal independence hero without also suppressing something of their own patriotic national identity.
— For the incoming Republican majority in the House of Representatives, some of whose members want to end aid, the hero’s welcome to the chamber for the Ukrainian leader suggested they would be embarrassed if they decided to abandon him.
— To Europeans enduring their own bleak winter of high electricity and heating prices after a Russian power outage, and who may be inclined to push for an end to the conflict on Putin’s terms, Zelensky showed that the West is united and that Biden means when he said on Wednesday that the US was in “as much as it takes”.
— To both Ukrainians huddled in basements and soldiers on the front lines, he proved they were not alone as Russian attacks on their power plants effectively turned winter into a weapon.
“We will celebrate Christmas, maybe by candlelight. Not because it’s more romantic, no, but because there won’t be electricity,” he said. “We will celebrate Christmas and even if there is no electricity, the light of our belief in ourselves will not go out.
But Zelensky’s rousing rhetoric and heroic demeanor could not mask the uncertainties and risks of a war in which the US is effectively now fighting a proxy battle with its nuclear superpower rival, Russia.
Zelensky has repeatedly pointed out that despite generous U.S. artillery support and the impending arrival of high-tech weapons like the Patriot missile battery that Biden unveiled on Wednesday, his nation is still outnumbered and outgunned.
“What will happen after the Patriots are installed? After that, we will send another signal to President Biden that we would like to have more patriots,” Zelensky said during a press conference at the White House. In his address to Congress, he said: “We have artillery, yes, thank you. We have it. Is it enough? Honestly, not really.” Both times he was joking, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t dead serious. In his address to Congress, Zelensky called on Washington to send more offensive weapons to boost victory.
“I assure you that Ukrainian soldiers are perfectly capable of operating American tanks and planes on their own,” Zelensky told lawmakers.
His comments touched on a rare point of contention during the ceremony. As Ukraine desperately searches for weapons to fight Russia harder, the fate of his country is not the only thing Biden has to consider.
The president has limited the power of the weapons he sends into battle, balancing the need to protect European democracy with the desire to avoid a catastrophic direct confrontation with Russia and to avoid crossing often invisible red lines whose location is known only to Putin.
“Now you’re saying, why don’t we just give Ukraine everything it can give?” Biden said at the White House, explaining that pushing an overwhelming force into Ukraine would risk upsetting the transatlantic consensus needed to sustain the war.
“We’re going to give Ukraine what it needs to be able to defend itself, to be able to succeed and succeed on the battlefield,” Biden said, arguing that European allies understand the stakes intimately. But he added: “They don’t want to go to war with Russia. They are not looking for a third world war. And neither is he.
Zelensky also had a message for some members of the incoming GOP House majority who are skeptical of massive aid to Ukraine, and potential new House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who warned again after Wednesday’s speech that he does not support an empty check for Ukraine.
“Your money is not charity. This is an investment in global security and democracy, which we treat in the most responsible way,” Zelensky said.
However, given the partisan furor that will erupt in a divided Washington next year, there is no guarantee that US lawmakers will even be able to fund their own government – let alone one that is fighting for its survival thousands of miles away.
Several Republican members who have expressed reservations about aid to Ukraine — such as Congressmen Lauren Bobert of Colorado and Matt Goetz of Florida — could not resist cheering when Zelensky was introduced.
Zelensky’s visit recalled a previous visit to Washington, which began 81 years ago Thursday, by another leader of a grim, bomb-ravaged nation desperate for US help to turn the tide toward victory over totalitarianism. Pelosi, possibly presiding over her last major event in Congress, recalled how her father was in the House, as a congressman from Maryland, when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed Congress on Dec. 26, 1941. Zelensky borrowed one of the greatest lines of the great statesman, as he also presented himself as a symbol of a nation’s defiance.
“Ukraine is holding its ground and will never surrender,” he said.
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