The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Zelensky, Biden use moral outrage as weapon in conflict with Russia

Zelensky has challenged Western allies, questioning their commitment and the existing security order. Biden has harshly criticized Putin but without policies to match.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a video address to a meeting of the U.N. Security Council in New York on April 5, 2022. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)
7 min

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky became a symbol of resistance and resilience in the early days of the war after the Russians invaded his country without provocation. He has also become a voice of moral clarity in the ways in which he has challenged the leaders of the West, on whose nations he is dependent for support in the war effort.

Zelensky has questioned, in a searing speech to the U.N. Security Council, the value of the United Nations if it cannot act more strongly. He has also asked whether Russia, after what it has done, should be allowed to continue as a permanent member of the Security Council.

He has called for a new international security system, arguing that the current structure has proved inadequate in this moment. He has criticized Germany in caustic language as continuing to fund the Russian war effort by its purchase of oil and natural gas from Russia. He has challenged allies repeatedly.

President Biden also has used his bully pulpit to project — sometimes in undiplomatic ways — his sense of moral outrage toward Russian President Vladimir Putin and the atrocities Russian military forces have inflicted on Ukrainian citizens during two months of war.

Biden has called Putin a war criminal. He said in a speech in Poland that the Russian president should not be allowed to remain in power. In the latest example, Tuesday, Biden accused the Russians of committing genocide as more evidence of indiscriminate civilian killings, some execution style, around Bucha and Mariupol was revealed. Biden said he would leave it to international lawyers to determine whether what the Russians have done qualifies as genocide, but he added, “It sure seems that way to me.”

Biden and Zelensky probably know the limits of their rhetoric vs. the realities of what they face. There are obvious risks for both, although the dangers are different for each leader. But in leveraging their positions, they have added something beyond realpolitik to the broader discussion about the implications of the war for the world and for what will happen when the conflict subsides.

Biden has used his platform to express thoughts that presidents usually do not say out loud (although many Americans share Biden’s view of Putin), whether it helps or hurts him politically and whether the words result in policy moves consistent with the rhetoric.

Zelensky’s character and moral compass have been displayed by his willingness to challenge those on whom he is most dependent and to raise uncomfortable questions about a world order that seemingly cannot stop the slaughter being carried out by Russia.

Zelensky remains a remarkable leader through the conflict, in large part because he had little international profile before the Russians began preparing to invade his country. He has kept up a steady stream of speeches — to his own people on an almost daily basis and to every national or international body he can find. His presidential website catalogues them all.

Zelensky’s speeches are consistent in their message but tailored to specific audiences. To the U.S. Congress, he invoked Pearl Harbor and 9/11 to plead for military equipment that the Biden administration was reluctant to supply. To Israel’s Knesset, he invoked the Holocaust while criticizing the country for not helping Ukraine. To the Germans, it was the Berlin Wall — accusing the Germany of helping to erect a new wall by putting economic interests first in continuing to buy oil and natural gas from Russia.

“What it’s about is to try and put the regionally confined conflict into a larger framework that should incentivize others to see this conflict not just about Ukraine but about their own security and global security,” said Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. ambassador to NATO and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “He’s very effective about that [by showing] that what Ukraine is facing today is similar to what those countries faced in those instances, all of which had implications far beyond their own countries.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has effectively shown the world what Russia’s war has meant for Ukraine. But inside Russia, the story is different. (Video: Luis Velarde/The Washington Post)

“He’s doing the job he needs to do, which is using every ounce of his political skill to appeal to … the West to stand by the values they claim to stand by and to point out the discrepancies and hypocrisies,” said Robin Niblett, the director of Chatham House, a London-based think tank. “He’s using every ounce and every scratch to get what he wants for his country, and it’s the right thing to do.”

But Niblett added a caveat to that assessment. “What I’d say is, he is trying to point to a form of moral clarity more broadly that is impossible, that is not realistic. And I think he knows it’s not realistic. … It’s how he leverages the S-300s [missile defense systems] and things he hasn’t gotten so far.”

Niblett said that however flawed Zelensky sees a U.N. Security Council with one permanent member that has now invaded a neighboring country and another permanent member, China, standing aside in support of the Russians, the structure was always likely to allow this to happen. “When any member of Security Council determines their interests are being challenged, there is nothing about the system that will take them on,” he said. “Big powers will do what big powers do.”

Daalder said he sees Zelensky’s condemnation of the United Nations as raising a bigger issue, “that a system created out of World War II is no longer able to provide for security. As he said in his speech to Congress, we need a new security system. … That’s not the U.N. It’s presumably a more Western-oriented security system.”

Biden’s rhetoric has been at times diplomatically inartful. What he said in Poland — “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power!” — immediately required his advisers to try to minimize it, saying it did not represent any change in policy on regime change. It caused consternation among European diplomats as well. Presidents are not supposed to speak off the cuff that way.

“But when you talk about moral clarity, there is something to be said that he has pointed to the reality, which is that Putin has crossed a threshold and a line that means we will not be able to go back to business as usual with him,” Niblett said. “There will not be, let bygones be bygones. … He [Biden] is putting a marker in the ground.”

Biden was unrepentant for what he said in Poland while noting that there is no policy to unseat Putin. “I’m not walking anything back,” he later told reporters. “The fact of the matter is, I was expressing the moral outrage I felt toward the way Putin is dealing and the actions of this man, which is just brutality.”

Daalder sees Biden as having the more difficult job in aligning the rhetoric of moral outrage with the responsibilities of his position. “He has two objectives,” Daalder said. “One is to help Ukraine. He buys into the moral clarity of Zelensky’s argument, and it’s one he himself through his entire career has believed in — the free world, and now autocracy versus democracy. The moral clarity comes from the outrage he feels internally. … But he also wants to avoid World War III.”

Biden has said consistently that U.S. forces will not enter the fight directly against Russian troops, a situation that the two Cold War powers always sought to avoid even during the worst of tensions. “That’s the challenge Biden has,” Daalder added. “And I think he needs to be careful that his rhetoric and the actions we are taking to support the Ukrainians — that the gap [between them] doesn’t become too big. … That’s the problem Biden has. He doesn’t have much room to maneuver.”

Biden has power that Zelensky doesn’t have, but he is constrained by the possible consequences of his actions. Zelensky has less power but has found that morally charged rhetoric is one weapon he can employ, and he has chosen to do constantly and consistently.