But, as cruel Russian President Vladimir Putin’s troops lay waste to cities and bombard citizens, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s inspirational rhetoric is now laced with a tangible note of desperation as he asks for a more direct Western engagement to save Ukraine.
The world’s democracies rushed anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons into Ukraine and crushed the Russian economy in a considerably more strong response than predicted in response to Zelensky’s relentless media campaign and courage in staying in Kyiv to fight alongside his people. However, his pleas for greater assistance, which will likely dominate his presentation to the US Congress and the American people on Wednesday, will also highlight Ukraine’s unfolding tragedy.
The measures that the warrior President says his country needs to survive, such as NATO-enforced no-fly zones and Soviet-era jets from former Warsaw Pact states that are now part of the West, are seen as a step too far by the Biden administration because they risk antagonising Moscow and dragging the US into a dangerous escalation with its nuclear-armed adversary.
In a presentation to the Canadian parliament on Tuesday, the Ukrainian President gave a possible preview of his request — and his mounting rage — in the latest stop on a virtual tour of national legislatures that is demonstrating his prowess at pressing Western leaders.
“Can you imagine when you call your friends, your friendly nation, and you ask: ‘Please close the sky, close the airspace. Please stop the bombing. How many more cruise missiles have to fall on our cities until you make this happen?’ And they, in return, they express their deep concerns about the situation,” he said.
The daily pleadings of Zelensky, combined with the horrible photos of civilian losses, make it hard to ignore Ukraine’s and its people’s suffering. If the worst happens and he is assassinated, as he has openly stated is a serious possibility, and Ukraine falls, speeches like this one to US congressmen will endure as a testament to Putin’s cruelty and a world system that failed to stop it.
Even if Biden is expected to offer a further $800 million in security support, including anti-tank missiles, after Zelensky’s speech, the Ukrainian President’s requests may be limited. According to CNN’s Kevin Liptak, Biden has not changed his mind about a no-fly zone.
Zelensky has already driven Western policymakers farther into a struggle that has altered the shape of post-Cold War Europe than they may have expected. His display of personal bravery gave the struggle a human face and contrasted with Putin’s rash authoritarianism.
Zelensky’s acting talent allows him to speak effectively with the citizens of the western nations whose governments he is attempting to influence. By invoking history and national mythology, he plays on foreign countries’ feeling of their own greatness and self-image.
In a speech to the British House of Commons, for example, Zelensky drew parallels between Winston Churchill, the country’s wartime prime minister, and the country’s lone stand against Nazi tyranny in 1940. “We will fight in the forests, on the coastlines, and in the streets,” he added, echoing a famous Churchill address in which the great politician, like Zelensky, pleaded for assistance from the “New World” — America. He also used Shakespeare’s classic line “To be, or not to be” — a contemplation on the essence of existence and death — to argue that Ukraine had chosen between life and sovereignty or “to be.”
“Please make sure you do what needs to be done and what is mandated by your country’s greatness,” Zelensky implored British lawmakers.
Zelensky put direct personal pressure on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a father of young children who is one of the NATO leaders who would have to sign off on increased support, in his speech to the Canadian parliament on Tuesday.
“Imagine that at 4 a.m., each of you start hearing bomb explosions,” Zelensky said. “Severe explosions. Justin, can you imagine hearing — you, your children, hear all these severe explosions: bombing of (the) airport, bombing of Ottawa airport, tens of other cities of your wonderful country. Can you imagine that?”
Zelensky also shown the ability of a consummate politician to make a difficult or distant issue familiar to a local audience. He challenged Canadians to envision what it would be like if Vancouver were under siege or if the CN Tower, Toronto’s iconic landmark, was bombed. “They are tearing down Ukrainian flags in each place they march through. Can you image your Canadian flags being taken down in Montreal and other Canadian cities? “he stated
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On Wednesday, Zelensky will undoubtedly tweak his message for a US audience. Given his mastery of historical allusion, it wouldn’t surprise us if he mentioned famous wartime presidents and freedom fighters like Franklin D. Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln, or America’s own struggle for independence against a stronger military power. His remarks are also likely to heighten internal political pressure on Biden to do more to support Ukraine and punish Russia. According to CNN’s MJ Lee and Lauren Fox, some congressional leaders are losing patience with the administration’s refusal to budge on Zelensky’s demands.
“The administration has first refused to accomplish everything that Congress has requested. Then, once our allies have done it, they say yes “Senator Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, echoed this sentiment. “It’s a slow process. It’s unbearable.”
However, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell reiterated his opposition to a no-fly zone that could result in direct clashes between US and Russian pilots over Ukraine on Tuesday. “He (Zelensky) already knows that the US would not intervene directly in Ukraine,” the Kentucky Republican added, but he did voice support for assisting Kyiv in acquiring outdated Soviet-era jets.
His remarks matched the prevailing sentiment in Congress, which Zelensky is sure to reaffirm on Wednesday. Ukraine will get greater backing, but it will be unable to overcome the geopolitical and nuclear impasse that prevents the West from fully committing to its defence.