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WAR IN EUROPE

Zelensky appeals to US public, Congress, president and the world for more help

Zelensky appeals to US public, Congress, president and the world for more help
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (on screen) delivers a video address to senators and members of the US Congress gathered in the Capitol Visitor Center Congressional Auditorium at the US Capitol in Washington, DC, 16 March 2022. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Scott Applewhite / Pool)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday spoke to the US Congress through a video link, thanking the US for its help so far, but calling for yet more help to drive back the Russians. He implored the US to be true to the rhetoric of it being the ‘leader of the world’.

Even if Ukraine’s military has yet to achieve strategic victories in repelling  Russia’s invasion, the country is clearly winning the international diplomatic battle. Oh, and the Ukrainian military does seem to be having some real successes in bringing down Russian helicopters and destroying its tanks, among other evidence of some serious fightback being taken to their enemy. This is happening even as Russian air assaults continue against buildings in the nation’s cities, including the capital. There is, consequently, an inevitable (and indiscriminate, despicable), growing civilian toll.  

But some of the most important action in recent days has come on the diplomatic front, beyond the battleground. On Tuesday, high-power government delegations from three neighbouring nations – Poland, Slovenia, the Czech Republic – came to Kyiv by a special train to demonstrate their support for the Ukrainian government and its president in the time of that country’s desperate circumstances.  

Read in Daily Maverick: Russia says half its foreign reserves are frozen, while President Zelensky warns Ukrainians against collaborating

Notably, and building upon his earlier addresses to the European Parliament, in a video link to the British House of Commons, the Ukrainian president invoked Winston Churchill’s famous speech about fighting on the beaches, streets and hills. Zelensky also spoke to the Canadian Parliament, and, then, on Wednesday, he delivered the first virtual speech ever to a joint sitting of the US Congress. On the jumbotron screen in the front of the well of the House of Representatives, there was Zelensky, flanked by a national flag and wearing his trademark military T-shirt and his increasingly luxuriant beard. 

Other parliamentary speeches are also on the cards for Zelensky in the days ahead. By contrast, it is extraordinarily unlikely we will be seeing Russian President Vladimir Putin following in Zelensky’s shoes in speaking to any legislative body beyond the one in Pyongyang. 

There have been many previous speeches by foreign leaders to the US Congress. The first one was by King Kalakaua from the then independent Kingdom of Hawaii back in 1874, as well as numerous addresses by French presidents, Queen Elizabeth II, various Israeli prime ministers, and, of course, Churchill. The Washington Post, recalling the first of Churchill’s three speeches to the US Congress, noted: 

“It was the day after Christmas in 1941, only three weeks after Japan had bombed Pearl Harbor, hurtling the United States into World War II. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill stood before a joint session of Congress, to steel Americans for what was to come, for what the United Kingdom had already been going through for two years.” 

This time around, right out of the starting blocks, Zelensky invoked the spirit of the US responses to the attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 and then the World Trade Center on 9/11 and added a reference to some of the Rev Martin Luther King’s most famous words. Zelensky offered his thanks for the help delivered from the US so far, saying, “Ukraine is grateful to the United States for its overwhelming support. I call on you to do more.” 

He asked for a no-fly zone to close the skies (or even just more tools like surface-to-air missiles for an adequate air defence system or those MiG jets held by Eastern European Nato members), additional sanctions packages rolling in, the departure of all US companies from Russia, the sanctioning of all Russian politicians not yet sanctioned, and in general the transfer of yet more weapons to help defeat the invaders.  

Then he showed a video. It was a powerful moment. The video was filled with aerial attacks on Ukrainian homes, families and buildings, and death. The video even offered a few grace notes woven in, amid all the carnage, pointing to Ukrainians’ resilience. There was a soundtrack that was more than a little reminiscent of the music from the film Schindler’s List.  Significantly, left out of Zelensky’s address was any direct reference to Ukraine’s desire to join Nato, signalling a possible shift in policy. 

Debate on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has ANC speakers doing a verbal tap dance as opposition argues government has failed the country 

Perhaps the video was a bit schmaltzy in parts, but it was really a blow, direct to the collective watching hearts. Switching to English, Zelensky reminded his audience – and preeminently US President Joe Biden – that being the leader of the world means being the leader for achieving the peace of the world. He said his nation was fighting for justice in history. There was no one still in their chairs in the Congress by the end of Zelensky’s less than half-hour presentation. If his goal was to make it impossible for Congress not to help, he may have hit the diplomatic equivalent of a home run. 

The Washington Post noted that so far, “The Biden administration has resisted Kyiv’s call to establish a no-fly zone in Ukraine, a measure that has little bipartisan support in Congress and one that U.S. officials fear could inflame tensions and risk a broader global conflict with nuclear-armed Russia. The White House is, however, set to announce $800 million more in security assistance Wednesday, a senior administration official said, as part of a government spending bill President Biden signed Tuesday that will provide $13.6 billion in new aid to Ukraine. Previous U.S. assistance has included shipments of antiaircraft and anti-armour systems.”  

A Nato leaders’ summit is set for next week and, taken with everything else that has happened, Zelensky’s speech may well have reset the terms of the discussion for that meeting. Without doubt, this speech has upped the pressure on the Biden administration to extend itself further in terms of aid to Ukraine, and it may even have moved the needle just a bit on that no-fly zone discussion, even if that would risk the possibility of direct encounters between Nato and Russian aircraft in Ukrainian airspace. 

Missed Daily Maverick’s webinar on “Putin’s Gamble in Ukraine”? Watch it here.

US President Biden was to speak later in the day to outline further measures in support of Ukraine’s struggle, although it is extremely unlikely he will endorse a no-fly zone over the embattled nation, given the possibility that could lead to direct confrontations between those Russian and Nato aircraft. Accordingly, despite the beginnings of some very modest changes in the tenor of Russian rhetoric towards the on-again/off-again negotiations between Russia and Ukraine, the struggle continues, the destruction continues, and the death continues. DM

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