President Volodymr Zelensky’s message to the West and its leaders is as follows: “We are all Ukrainians.”
As he fights an existential battle for his own country, Zelensky uses patriotic symbolism, historic traumas, and idealized self-images that people have of their own countries to encapsulate his own desperate plight.
His masterful political conceit, on display in his address to the US Congress on Wednesday, is designed to frame the war as everyone’s war, not as a confusing and distant dispute bound up in the confusing history of greater Russia.
By comparing Russia’s unstoppable airborne attacks to 9/11 – or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 – Zelensky hopes to persuade President Joe Biden to do more. He expertly manipulated America’s national psyche by invoking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” refrain in order to bring Ukraine’s dream of sovereignty and independence to life.
While Western leaders are concerned about being drawn into a direct shooting war with nuclear-armed Russia, Zelensky contends that a larger, existential war for freedom, democracy, and human dignity is already underway.
And, after referring to Prime Minister Trudeau by his first name “Justin” in a similar address to Canadian lawmakers on Tuesday, the deeper, political purpose of Zelensky’s rhetorical strategy became clear as he switched into English at the end of his speech to personally address Biden. He is effectively putting those leaders on notice that his fate, the fate of his people, and the survival of Ukraine will be decided by their willingness to defend the principles for which they speak and on which their democracies are founded.
As Russia’s troops mercilessly pound civilian areas and besiege cities, Ukraine’s president is on a virtual tour, addressing national legislatures and pleading for measures such as a no-fly zone and more sophisticated weapons.
His message is rooted in the spirit of the headline that appeared in the French newspaper Le Monde after the September 11, 2001 attacks: “Nous sommes tous Américains” — “we are all Americans.” While Ukrainians are under attack at the moment, the values for which they are fighting, such as freedom from tyranny, democracy, and the right to die in old age when the time comes, are shared by all.
Zelensky, as he has done in previous speeches to the European Parliament, as well as to British and Canadian lawmakers, leaned heavily on his audience’s national self-perception and patriotic mythology on Wednesday.
The horror of an airborne attack is shocking, indiscriminate, and unstoppable, and it is now raining death from the skies of Ukraine, just as it did against Americans in Hawaii, New York City, and the Washington area. His argument’s strength and logic were unmistakable. However, geopolitics is a part of Ukraine’s and Zelensky’s tragedy. The idea of a no-fly zone over non-NATO member Ukraine has been dismissed by Biden and most congressional leaders as too risky, as it could force US pilots to shoot down Russian jets. Such clashes could set off an escalation cycle that could lead to World War III and a nuclear exchange that would endanger humanity.
When he first took office, Zelensky was widely regarded as naive and out of his depth. Ex-President Donald Trump, who remains a hero to many of the Republicans who sat in stunned silence during Zelensky’s speech, even tried to extort him with the threat of US military aid in order to force him to open a politically motivated investigation into Biden and his son Hunter. The dirty campaign trick resulted in Trump’s first impeachment. But, after initially downplaying the likelihood of a Russian invasion, much to the chagrin of the US, Zelensky, with his own life in jeopardy, has met his moment like few modern political leaders.
His refusal to leave Kyiv — encapsulated by his comment, “I don’t need a ride, I need more ammunition” — galvanized the heroic Ukrainian resistance to the invasion, contrasted with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s isolation in the Kremlin, and inspired a stronger than expected international response.