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Zelensky’s scathing speech to Germany

In a speech to Congress on March 16, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky again asked for a no-fly zone to protect against Russia’s attacks. (Video: Drea Cornejo/The Washington Post)
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It was a striking scene: The president of Ukraine, given a platform to address the U.S. Congress, using that platform to challenge the fortitude and will of an American president in helping Ukraine repel Russia’s invasion.

But it was nothing compared to Volodymyr Zelensky’s later speech to Germany’s parliament. And the address both reinforced that Zelensky’s strategy of directly challenging Western leaders is hardly just about the United States, and that he appears to be growing more blunt.

After his address to Congress on Wednesday, Zelensky addressed Germany on Thursday. The most oft-cited remark involved Zelensky talking about Russia erecting a wall in Europe between freedom and oppression, and urging German Chancellor Olaf Scholz to “Tear down this wall” — evoking President Ronald Reagan’s famous line about the Berlin Wall.

But that was hardly Zelensky’s most significant remark.

In the course of his speech, Zelensky repeatedly faulted German leaders for allowing Russia to expand its influence, and he compared the situation to the West’s promises to “never again” allow a situation such as the Holocaust.

“Every year, politicians say, ‘Never again,’ ” Zelensky said, according to CNN, invoking a war in which Germany was the aggressor. “Now, I see that these words are worthless. In Europe, a people is being destroyed.”

Oliver Moody, the Berlin correspondent for the Times and the Sunday Times in the United Kingdom, tweeted out some of Zelensky’s translated remarks, and the entire thread is worth a look.

Zelensky zeroed in on his many warnings about the Nord Stream 2 natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany and the leverage it gave Russia. Ukraine opposed the pipeline, but Germany and the United States allowed it to proceed, until it was recently halted.

“We always said Nord Stream 2 is a weapon and a preparation for the great war, and we got the answer that it was business, business, business,” Zelensky said.

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On Ukraine’s desire to join NATO and the European Union, Zelensky suggested that Germany and others had slow-rolled Ukraine, with dire consequences.

“We asked you: What should Ukraine do to become a member of NATO and get the security guarantee?” Zelensky said. “And we got the answer: There is no such decision on the table.”

“Now you’re dragging your feet on Ukraine’s admission to the E.U. Frankly … that is a stone in the new wall,” Zelensky said.

“When we appealed for preventative sanctions, we turned to you … but we felt the delay, the resistance,” Zelensky said. “We’ve understood: You want business, business, business.”

Zelensky repeatedly reached for historical parallels — as he has in other such addresses — comparing the situation his country now finds itself in to World War II and the Holocaust. He even noted Germany’s invasion back then of Ukraine.

“You must do what you can so that you will not be ashamed of yourselves after this war, after this destruction for the second time in 80 years, after the city of Chernihiv was bombed to pieces and destroyed,” he said of the city which marks the first major town on the route south to Kyiv.

“You said this could never be repeated,” he said. “Once again, there is an attempt in Europe to destroy an entire people.”

“What is historical responsibility worth if you still don’t regret what happened 80 years ago?” he added. “This is the wall now, and it will grow ever taller … Chancellor Scholz, tear down this wall.”

The themes of Zelensky’s speech were familiar, and he wasn’t saying anything about Nord Stream 2, for instance, that he hasn’t said before in front of a U.S. audience. In June 2021, he told American media that the pipeline was a “weapon” in Russia’s possession. “It is not very understandable … that the bullets to this weapon can possibly be provided by such a great country as the United States.”

But it’s important to note that his challenge to President Biden on Tuesday was very much in line with how he has talked about these issues with other Western leaders. It’s true of how he spoke to Canada and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — whom he repeatedly addressed directly as “Justin” — and it’s somewhat true of how he spoke to the U.K. House of Commons last week, in which he invoked that country’s plight in World War II.

Zelensky’s address to Biden was also followed Thursday by a bit of counterprogramming from his chief of staff. Andriy Yermak appeared on CNN on Thursday morning after Biden announced new measures to combat Russia, and he made a point to hail Biden as someone who knows his country better “and who has done more than all presidents of United States.”

The diplomatic strategy here is evident. Zelensky wants the West to feel more of a sense of responsibility and accountability than it currently feels for what’s happening in his country, even as he knows he’s asking for things the West has been united in resisting, like a no-fly zone. He invokes things like Nord Stream 2 and NATO to reinforce that its decisions today — and the areas in which it declines to act — will be judged accordingly in the future.

And if that blame game ever comes to fruition, it’s clear he’s happy for it to be spread broadly across the West.