WASHINGTON — “It’s too much for me,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told members of Congress at the beginning of a powerful, often emotional address Wednesday evening in which he cast his nation’s struggle against Russia as an existential, global battle for freedom.
The former actor and comedian deftly roused American patriotism while defending Ukrainian sovereignty. He showed gratitude for American largesse even as he asked for more. Seemingly courting comparisons to Winston Churchill, who addressed Congress during the darkest days of World War II in 1941, he cut through partisan politics with an appeal to shared American and Ukrainian values.
The speech ended with Vice President Kamala Harris and outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi hoisting a Ukrainian flag that Zelensky had presented to them. That same flag had been presented to Zelensky only days ago by soldiers in Bakhmut, a small city in eastern Ukraine on the front lines of the battle against Russia.
Zelensky promised victory
As the Russian invasion of Ukraine was about to begin last winter, many observers predicted a swift Russian victory. But the Ukrainian resistance — hardened by Western intelligence and materiel — showed remarkable resilience. Now it is Kyiv, not Moscow, that talks openly of victory.
“Ukraine didn’t fall,” Zelensky said early in his speech, in what could be taken as an appeal to an American affection for the underdog. “Ukraine is alive and kicking.”
Russia’s army is much larger than Ukraine’s, but it is poorly trained and rife with corruption and abuse. The United States had been training Ukrainian troops for years, aware that a full-scale invasion would inevitably follow Russia’s 2014 annexation of Crimea and subsequent incursions into eastern Ukraine.
Now, the fruits of that training — and of a constant flow of weapons from the West to Ukraine — are playing out on the battlefield, with the Kremlin seemingly flummoxed by a foe it had thought it could vanquish within a matter of days.
Both political parties found something to cheer
Especially striking on Wednesday night was the sight of members of both the Republican and Democratic parties rising to enthusiastically cheer the Ukrainian president as he spoke in confident, assertive English.
At a time of bitter political divisions, Zelensky seemed to unite Washington with an appeal that may have offered something to conservatives and progressives alike.
“The world is too interconnected and interdependent to allow someone to stay aside and at the same time to feel safe when such a battle continues — our two nations are allies in this battle,” he said, tethering Russia to the anti-democratic movement that has found a foothold in the United States and other Western nations.
The message was sure to resonate with Democrats, especially as a congressional panel prepared to release its final report on the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the U.S. Capitol. The riot was instigated by supporters of former president Donald Trump, widely seen by his opponents as having fostered a far too close relationship with Vladimir Putin.
To conservatives, Zelensky offered a compelling image of a nation about to celebrate Christmas amidst the ruins of war. “We will celebrate Christmas. Even if there is no electricity, the light of our faith in ourselves will not be put out,” Ukraine’s first Jewish president said, bringing members of Congress to their feet for one of several standing ovations.
References to both the Battle of Saratoga — a key American victory in the Revolutionary War — and to Democratic icon Franklin D. Roosevelt appeared to also offer competing ideological factions cause to cheer for Ukraine.
Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., and Lauren Boebert, R-Colo., both hardline pro-Trump conservatives, were the two legislators most visibly hostile to Zelensky’s message. As other members of Congress rose to cheer at one point, both could be seen sitting and looking down at their smartphones.
But… there’s no victory without weapons
As he did at the White House earlier in the day, Zelensky made a plea for more — and more powerful — weapons.
“We have artillery. Yes. Thank you. We have it. Is it enough? Honestly, not really,” he said at one point, in what was at once a joke and a dead-serious plea. Ukrainians want outright victory, which they believe is not possible without more powerful American weapons, such as long range-missile systems.
“I assure you that Ukrainian soldiers can perfectly operate American tanks and planes themselves,” Zelensky said, in a line that could not have thrilled Pentagon officials who fear that Putin could come to equate American assistance with American involvement, potentially leading to a conflict between the two superpowers.
Ukraine is a smart investment
In an evident reference to Americans’ fiscal sensibilities, Zelensky cast the billions the U.S. has devoted to military and humanitarian support of Ukraine as not merely a moral cause but a savvy investment in democratic governance that was bound to pay off with enhanced American stature and international stability.
“Your money is not charity. It’s an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way,” he said.
The reference to responsibility could be seen as a subtle acknowledgement that he knows some conservative Republicans want to launch an “audit” of American aid, which would prove a time-consuming exercise.
Zelensky argued that by aiding Ukraine, the U.S. was only enhancing its own security, since victory by Russia would not only further embolden Putin but also potentially give license to autocratic regimes in Beijing, Pyongyang, Tehran and elsewhere.
“This struggle will define in what world our children and grandchildren will live — and then their children and grandchildren,” he said.
Thank you, America
Zelensky is clearly mindful of the fact that the billions the U.S. has devoted to the Ukrainian war effort could have been spent on domestic priorities. Critics on both ideological extremes have made precisely that point, only to be rebuffed by party leaders.
But those calls have only grown louder as the war has approached its one-year anniversary.
“I hope my words of respect and gratitude resonate in each American heart,” the young Ukrainian leader said.
In the months to come, the results of his whirlwind Washington tour will become evident, as Congress will almost certainly find itself debating a new package of military aid.
But if the response to Zelensky on Wednesday was any indication, it was a trip that was bound to pay off for Ukraine, perhaps many times over.