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Ukraine’s Zelensky meets the moment as he speaks to Congress

The Ukrainian president has drawn the admiration of people around the world. What he really wants is more military assistance.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a virtual speech before Congress on March 16. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

In a matter of weeks, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has become a beacon to the world, a wartime leader rallying his country, a symbol of courage in the face of personal danger, a politician who has shown anew the power of words and language.

He was once a comedian who played a president on television, who then ran for office and became a president, who early in his tenure was subjected to attempted political extortion by then-President Donald Trump. Americans might have heard of him then but few others in the world knew his name. Now the 44-year-old Zelensky is instantly recognized, leading a sovereign country attacked without provocation.

Though Zelensky has become a figure of worldwide admiration, he stands largely alone in the face of the deadly Russian onslaught — frustrated for his country as he struggles to persuade the West to do more than it has done to come to Ukraine’s defense. He has repeatedly challenged President Biden and other leaders — unsuccessfully so far — to approve a no-fly zone over Ukraine or send fighter jets and other assets he considers essential to defeating the Russians.

On Wednesday morning, Zelensky carried his appeals directly to Washington when he spoke by video link to a joint session of Congress. He was hardly the first foreign leader to do so, as the list of presidents, prime ministers, a pope and other notables is lengthy and star-studded. He was not even the first Ukrainian president to be afforded that honor. In 2014, President Petro Poroshenko spoke to a joint session — and asked for more military aid from the United States, as Zelensky did Wednesday.

But no previous foreign dignitary, with the possible exception of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in 1941, with whom Zelensky has been compared, has spoken under the conditions that surrounded the Ukrainian’s appearance on Wednesday — a leader in the depths of a conflict, his country under attack and with no certain end.

Zelensky’s appearance continued a tour — made virtually as he has remained in Kyiv, Ukraine’s war-torn capital — of other governments and legislative bodies, including speeches to the British Parliament, European leaders, the people of Poland, the people of Europe, even to the people of Belarus, from whose territory the Russian forces launched some of their attacks.

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On Tuesday, Zelensky spoke to the Canadian Parliament. When he finished, he received a standing ovation from the packed chamber that lasted almost three minutes. It was a repeat of what has happened everywhere he has appeared. Britain’s House of Commons was overflowing when he spoke by video last week, with many people standing where they could find space.

In that speech, he channeled Churchill’s rhetoric during the darkest days of June 1940, when France had fallen to the Nazis, British forces had been hastily evacuated from Dunkirk and the British people were preparing for months of aerial bombardment by German aircraft. In that Commons chamber, Churchill declared, “We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on beaches, landing grounds, in fields, in streets and on the hills. We shall never surrender.”

Nearly a hundred children have died in the war that followed Russia's invasion of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky told Canadian lawmakers on March 15. (Video: Reuters)

Zelensky’s version was this, according to the text on the Ukrainian presidential website: “We shall not give up and shall not lose. We shall go the whole way. … We shall fight in the woods, in the fields, on the beaches, in the cities and villages, in the streets. We shall fight in the hills … on the banks of the Kalmius and the Dnieper. And we shall not surrender.” His choice of words was as powerful and effective as it was deliberate.

Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the U.K. Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee and a military veteran, was in the Commons last week when Zelensky appeared on the video screens. He said he was struck by the contrast of the suits and ties in the Commons chamber and Zelensky “sitting in his fatigues, unshaven and looking like my former comrades did just coming off patrol.”

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But he was equally struck by Zelensky’s Churchillian language and of the Ukrainian leader’s quoting of the famous “To be or not to be” from Shakespeare’s Hamlet. “To be or not to be. … Thirteen days ago [before the war started], this question could still be raised about Ukraine,” Zelensky told the British audience. “But not now. Obviously, to be. Obviously to be free.”

Ukrainian President Zelensky addressed British lawmakers on March 8, saying, “We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost." (Video: The Washington Post)

Tugendhat said Zelensky was “quoting to us all of our seminal speeches. … He was quoting our heroes to us, and he also pointed out, yes we’re fighting alone, but Britain fought alone in Battle of Britain.”

Andrew Roberts, author of the biography “Churchill: Walking with Destiny,” said comparisons between the two leaders are not overdrawn. “Winston Churchill, although he was bombed every night during the Blitz in the same way that Kyiv is being bombed, didn’t have the added dangers of the Germans landing in Britain,” he said. “They weren’t 20 kilometers away. In a sense, Zelensky is undergoing more immediate danger even than Winston Churchill did. So [comparisons are] not over the top.”

“Churchill’s appeal was based on defiance, hope and certainty of victory,” said John McLaughlin, former acting director of the CIA now at the School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University. “Those themes are all in Zelensky’s speeches — and in similar circumstances.”

McLaughlin pointed to Zelensky’s personal courage, demonstrated by his decision to remain in Kyiv, in contrast to the decision last year by former Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, “who fled instantly when the Taliban appeared at the gates of Kabul.”

There was a moment, not easily confirmed but widely reported, when Zelensky was supposedly offered U.S. help to evacuate and said in reply, “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.” True story or not, it has taken on iconic status in Ukraine and beyond, adding to his own story.

McLaughlin said Zelensky has two qualities that distinguish him as a leader. “Here’s an individual who stands up, walks in the street, talks to people and projects hope,” he said. “And as a nonpolitician, he has a kind of empathy for the common person. Show business people understand what motivates people to come to laugh, to be entertained. Politicians have a distorted view of that.”

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Zelensky also understands modern media, social and otherwise. Through video, he has been in daily contact with the people of Ukraine — whether those hunkered down at home, fighting in the streets or fleeing to Poland or beyond — as well as the wider world. The videos all look the same: the leader dressed in an olive-green military T-shirt and sometimes a matching zippered jacket, looking into a laptop on his desk and seated next to a Ukrainian flag.

From satirical comedy to dancing and even voicing Paddington Bear, Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky had a pre-presidential career like few others. (Video: Julie Yoon/The Washington Post)

His speeches are relatively short and as a result more powerful. To the British Parliament, the address was just over 1,000 words. He speaks with clarity and simplicity. He regularly recounts for his audiences the day-by-day horrors of the invasion — the civilian buildings targeted, the civilian casualties and suffering, the march of the Russian forces.

He mourns for the children killed as he calls for resilience and praises the spirits of ordinary Ukrainian citizens as well as a military that has provided more resistance than the Russians anticipated. But he does not underestimate what could lie ahead. As Roberts put it, “He doesn’t try to sugar the pill.”

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To international audiences, Zelensky expresses gratitude for the solidarity of their support. But he has not flinched from pleading to the point of shaming his listeners to provide even greater support, including a no-fly zone over his country, as he did again on Tuesday speaking to the Canadian Parliament.

McLaughlin summed up Zelensky’s message as, “We’re not just fighting for Ukraine; we are fighting for everything you stand for.’”

One of Zelensky’s longest speeches was delivered in person, at the Munich security conference days before the Russians invaded. He cited World War II, the last major land war in Europe, as he forcefully pleaded with the West to stand more strongly with Ukraine.

“Has the world forgotten its mistakes of the 20th century?” he asked. “As the question, ‘Why die for Danzig?’ turned into the need to die for Dunkirk and dozens of other cities in Europe and the world, at the cost of tens of millions of lives. These are terrible lessons of history. I just want to make sure you and I read the same books.”

Ukraine’s tenacious leader asked that question again on Wednesday, in one form or another. He implored Americans to remember the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

This is Zelensky’s moment and he tried to make the most of it for his people and his country.