Zelensky and the Pilot’s Helmet — Ukrainian president gives British Parliament a masterclass in diplomacy
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky this week left his war-torn country for his second trip abroad since Russia’s invasion, stopping first in London. The way he held the total attention of his audience at Westminster Hall for more than half an hour with a mix of humour and seduction in broken but comprehensible English was masterful.
It was like something out of the movie The Darkest Hour when the British Parliament erupted into applause in support of Winston Churchill’s vow to fight Adolf Hitler to the finish.
The tiny frame of the Ukrainian leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, receiving repeated standing ovations and cheers in the 1,000-year-old Westminster Hall was a sight and sound to behold.
He strode purposefully down the side of Westminster Hall, his diminutive frame clad in his trademark military fatigues, dwarfed by a long entourage of burly security guards, his own Ukrainian military colleagues in uniform and the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sir Lindsay Hoyle, in ceremonial robes.
The scene was in sharp contrast to his address to an orderly crowd in the US Congress last year.
Members of the Commons and House of Lords were given only a couple of hours’ notice about the visit and guests to Parliament were rushed in via the Portcullis House underground approach.
The throng of standing parliamentarians had more the look and feel of a political rally than an address by a visiting head of state.
The manager of the hotel where Zelensky and his large entourage had overnighted — situated in the heart of Whitehall — said he had never seen security on that scale.
Before visiting Parliament, Zelensky had met British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in Downing Street, met Foreign Secretary James Cleverly in the hotel and sat in the chair in the underground Cabinet War Rooms from where Churchill directed key moments in World War 2.
Standing on the steps of the cavernous hall pleading for fighter planes to defeat the Russians was a moment of history as whispers were heard about the consequences — World War 3 was mentioned.
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The hallowed hall is as close as one can get to a physical embodiment of English democracy and a symbol of the Westminster system.
Only the most iconic leaders have received the honour of an invitation to address both houses of Parliament: Nelson Mandela (twice), Barack Obama, Charles de Gaulle, Pope Benedict XVI and the now-discredited Aung San Suu Kyi.
King Charles I was sentenced to death here for refusing to submit to the authority of Parliament in 1649 after the bitterly fought English civil war.
In the absence of a written Constitution, the 1,000-year-old hall is the next best thing.
Zelensky’s pleas for fighter planes and more tanks and military hardware were predictable, and predicated by oft-repeated praise for British strength, resolve and reliability.
But the way he held the total attention of his audience for more than half an hour with a mix of humour and seduction in broken but comprehensible English was masterful.
It was his second visit to the British Parliament, but his first Westminster Hall address. Most visiting heads of state received the honour in the Royal Gallery or the Monarch’s Robing Room.
“Last time I visited [in 2020], I thanked you for delicious English tea,” he said, to laughter.
“This time I will thank you in advance for powerful English planes.“
Sunak had told Zelensky: “nothing is off the table” when it comes to Britain supporting Ukraine in the fight against Russia. Sunak vowed to send more tanks and to train fighter pilots but he stopped short of agreeing to send planes.
Experts pointed out that Ukrainian fighter pilots would take at least six to 18 months to train.
Many in Europe have reservations about providing fighter planes to Ukraine for fear that it will further escalate the war and runs the risk of Russian President Vladimir Putin deploying tactical nuclear weapons.
Zelensky’s day ended with an audience with King Charles III and he joked ahead of the royal meeting.
He presented the Speaker with the helmet of “one of our most successful” Ukrainian air force pilots.
“He is one of our kings,” Zelensky said.
“In Britain today the king is an air force pilot,” he said. “And today in Ukraine every air force pilot is a king.”
“We have freedom. Give us wings to protect it.”
Zelensky said that victory in the war against Russia was not only vital for Ukraine and Nato.
It would herald a “new world order” in which dictators would not be able to terrorise and kill people to get their way.
Former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, looking more dishevelled than ever, was conspicuous by his presence and was adamant that the UK should give Zelensky everything he asked for including planes and tanks.
It was a rare moment of party political unity in both Houses. Sunak and Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer stood side-by-side and laughed at Zelensky’s jokes.
But there was an awkward undercurrent of awareness that the stakes were very high. DM
John Battersby is a former correspondent of the New York Times and the Christian Science Monitor, and was editor of the Sunday Independent from 1996-2001. He was the UK country manager of Brand South Africa from 2004-2015 and is now a London-based writer and consultant. He is the co-author of two books on Nelson Mandela.