As Russia’s assault on Ukraine enters its second week, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has shifted from rallying world leaders — who have levied historic economic and financial sanctions against Russia — to shaming them for not doing more to hasten the war’s end.
“People, children are under the wreckage. Atrocity!” Zelensky wrote. “How much longer will the world be an accomplice ignoring terror? Close the sky right now!” he demanded, repeating his call for Western nations to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine. The United States and other NATO members have refused, saying that would risk putting them in direct conflict with Russia and igniting a wider war.
“Stop the killings!” Zelensky demanded. “You have power but you seem to be losing humanity.”
The actor-turned-president now finds himself playing to two audiences. First, there are the besieged citizens of Ukraine, whom the president has rallied into a makeshift civil defense force, crafting molotov cocktails and barricading city streets in anticipation of tens of thousands of Russian troops.
But the second audience, fellow world leaders, has resisted Zelensky’s demands for direct military intervention. Despite his newfound global influence and personal rapport with President Biden, who has spoken to Zelensky a dozen times since taking office in January 2021, U.S. and European leaders remain cautiously on the sidelines, prepared to ship antitank and antiaircraft weapons to Ukraine’s military but not to step much further into the conflict by sending fighter jets, which Zelensky has pleaded for this week.
“Together we must return courage to some Western leaders, so that they do what they had to do on the first day of the invasion: Either close the Ukrainian sky from Russian missiles and bombs or give us fighter jets so we do everything ourselves,” Zelensky said Wednesday.
Zelensky blasted the White House for not helping Ukraine obtain MiG-29 fighter planes that the Polish government offered to send to a U.S. air base in Germany. The United States has said flying the jets from a NATO country to attack Russian forces risked pulling the alliance into a war. Moscow has warned that any country hosting Ukraine’s military aircraft would be considered a party to the armed conflict.
Poland’s proposal appeared intended to shift the responsibility for delivering the aircraft — and risking a potential Russian military retaliation — to the United States. As a result, the Pentagon said the plan was not “tenable.”
Zelensky has evinced little patience for such caution and portrayed the refusal as a diplomatic game that puts Ukraine’s existence at risk.
“This is not ping-pong! This is about human lives!” he said in a video statement Wednesday ahead of Vice President Harris’s visit to Poland. “We ask once again: Solve it faster. Do not shift the responsibility. Send us planes.”
In an address Tuesday to the British Parliament, Zelensky, wearing what has become his trademark military-green T-shirt, vowed, “We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets.” The deliberate Churchillian tones resonated with lawmakers, who gave him a standing ovation.
But after Zelensky repeated his calls for the no-fly zone, Prime Minister Boris Johnson promised only that sanctions on Russia, as well as humanitarian and military aid, would continue from Britain “until Ukraine is free.”
Speaking to reporters in Washington on Wednesday, British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss tried to put the planes issue to rest. “The best way to defend” Ukraine, she said, is “with antitank weapons and anti-air weapons.”
Still unclear is exactly why NATO members think handing lethal weapons to Ukrainian forces to kill Russian soldiers is a step short of giving Ukrainian pilots the planes to bomb them.
The telegenic and combative qualities that made Zelensky an unexpected symbol of resistance have also been a source of discomfort for Western leaders.
During a news conference Wednesday, reporters raised Zelensky’s remarks about the fighters with Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who attempted to sympathize with the Ukrainian president’s position and explain Washington’s concerns.
“If I were in President Zelensky’s position, I’m sure I would be asking for everything possible … to help the Ukrainian people,” said Blinken, who added that allies were still trying to work out a solution. But the U.S. position remains unchanged.
Zelensky riveted the world’s attention in the early days of the Russian invasion when he appeared on the streets of Kyiv, along with top members of his administration, declaring they would remain in the capital, even as a massive Russian convoy bore down on them and the city’s 3 million residents. His ubiquitous pronouncements and presence on social media have “definitely had an influence on public opinion” far beyond Ukraine’s borders, said Jacques Pitteloud, the Swiss ambassador to the United States. His country has supported sanctions against Russia despite its long-standing tradition of neutrality.
“There is no question that public opinion and the sympathies of public opinion in Switzerland were influenced by the very successful projection of a certain image,” Pitteloud said, while noting the Swiss government’s interest in defending international law, which benefits smaller countries.
Still, there are limits to what Zelensky’s public browbeating can achieve.
Pitteloud said he sympathized with Zelensky because Ukraine’s weapons stocks “are being depleted” but also understood NATO’s reluctance to start a war.
No one could accuse Zelensky of failing to persuade the West for lack of trying. He has spoken with Biden five times since Feb. 24, the day Russia invaded, according to White House records.
Zelensky irritated some senior Biden administration officials when he downplayed the likelihood of a Russian invasion and accused Washington and London of stirring public panic with their repeated warnings about an imminent attack.
But Zelensky and Biden have forged a rapport that seems to have weathered those early tensions. A senior Biden administration official recounted how in one of their early phone calls Zelensky impressed Biden and his team by referencing a 2015 speech then-Vice President Biden had delivered to Ukraine’s parliament, the Rada, on rooting out corruption.
Zelensky’s hat tip to that speech “demonstrated the level of preparation [he] was doing for these calls,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private conversation. “It was great to see Zelensky quoting back Biden’s own speech. It demonstrated to me not just Biden’s history there, but also that Zelensky was preparing for this meeting, that he was really taking it seriously.”
Zelensky’s close aides said that they are not surprised by his candor and that at the same time as he pleads with the world for help, he blames it for enabling his country’s invaders.
“If there’s hypocrisy that needs to be pointed out, he points it out,” said Igor Novikov, a former adviser.
Zelensky was a TV celebrity before he became one of recent history’s more improbable leaders. But that background serves him, Novikov said.
“He’s from the showbiz background,” he said. “The people who are from showbiz are equipped with this really interesting sixth sense, an instinct that tells you what people think and what people like. There comes that moment when you feel them and they feel you and you’re on the same wavelength.”
Even if he can’t persuade NATO to give him jets, Zelensky has arguably done more to unite the United States and Europe against Russia than many leaders in recent memory, leading some observers to compare him to history’s most redoubtable Cold Warriors.
“You can make some comparison to Ronald Reagan, I think,” said Heather Conley, the president of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. “This is where the actor understands the moment, understands the messages that need to be delivered in that moment. You can absolutely credit him and his constant outreach to world leaders, and of course the incredible courage of the Ukrainian people. It is changing policy.”
Conley said that in previous conflicts, including when Russia invaded Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014, “the Russians really owned the information space, masterfully owned it, and it could not be any more different with President Zelensky.”
“It is authentic,” she said. “We are watching the largest land war in Europe since the Second World War. We are watching it in real time. We are watching in on our phones. We are hearing from friends, family, loved ones who are living it in their basements.”
There’s one offer from U.S. officials that Zelensky has not embraced: helping him leave Kyiv or resettle his administration in a safe location and begin a government-in-exile. He flatly refused, a theme of defiance that has become the Zelensky signature.