Volodymyr Zelensky: The right man at the wrong moment
In what may be a game-changing moment in communications as well as in geopolitics, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed the 117th U.S. Congress on Wednesday. It was a scene not witnessed since British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the 77th Congress on Dec. 26, 1941, just weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, thrusting America into World War II.
What made Zelensky’s remarks so raw and compelling were the circumstances that the 44-year-old president faces. Here was the leader of a country sitting in his capital city, Kyiv, while it is under assault from Russian military forces that are bombing and shelling without regard for the civilian population. He wore a green military shirt while making an impassioned plea to the world, and especially to President Biden, to help Ukraine stand up to the insidious Russian president, Vladimir Putin.
One could be forgiven for thinking, even while watching him, that he might well be killed like countless numbers of his countrymen in the hours, days or weeks to come.
We’ve never seen anything quite like this as it pertains to war: a president who is a former entertainer, comedian, film and reality-TV star, a man more than a few believed was in way over his head when this conflict exploded three weeks ago — and yet, one who has shown repeatedly that he understands what he must say and show to a watching world.
He did so again in speaking to Congress.
“‘I have a dream.’ These words are known to each of you today,” Zelensky said, invoking the memory of slain civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. “I can say, ‘I have a need.’ I need to protect our sky. I need your help.”
Zelensky then appealed directly to President Biden, who was at the White House during the Ukrainian leader’s speech: “You are the leader of your great nation. I wish you to be the leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.”
Watching this unprecedented virtual address, many viewers and listeners undoubtedly felt a palpable sense of foreboding; perhaps Zelensky felt it too, but he never showed it. He probably knows that the air cavalry isn’t coming from NATO. He knows that a no-fly zone would likely consist of shooting down Russian warplanes and therefore would be considered an act of war by Putin, who has threatened to respond with nukes that very likely would unleash World War III. Untold millions could be killed; the world as we know it could change forever.
Zelensky surely knows, too, that his time may be running out. His courage and poignant messaging, using social media and the internet still at his disposal, has masterfully inspired most of the world to stand for Ukraine and against Russia. Ukrainian forces have given Putin’s military all that it can handle, inflicting reportedly heavy casualties while slowing down Russian convoys.
Yet time is not on Zelensky’s side. Negotiations appear to be going nowhere; Putin will probably never accept defeat — nor will Zelensky, even if that ultimately costs him his life. The Ukrainian president – who reportedly said “I need ammunition, not a ride” when the U.S. first offered to evacuate him – seems to be locked into victory or death.
Despite being a creature of TV, Zelensky still may have surprised Capitol Hill’s lawmakers when he played a video chronicling the war to this point. The only words that came to my mind while watching it were “heart-wrenching” and “graphic.” The images of dead children, of kids crying to Ukrainian soldiers desperate to comfort them, of once-peaceful and beautiful cities bombed and blackened, of bodies being dumped into mass graves — these images seemed like something from World War II, except that they were playing in color and high-definition.
Afterward, the comparisons of Zelensky to Churchill were immediate and predictable, if a bit strained. Churchill was a unique master of the English language and the delivery of words, which Zelensky is not. But both men share being underestimated by their political and military foes. In that regard, Zelensky also reminds me a little of Ronald Reagan, another underestimated actor-turned-president who used his command of speech-making and his understanding of his audience to move his countrymen at terrible moments and whose unflinching resolve ultimately triumphed over the then-Soviet Union.
If there is a true turning point in U.S. and NATO involvement in this war, it will be dated as occurring on Wednesday, March 16. Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to the U.S and to the world: Help us before Putin murders us all. “Is this a lot to ask for, to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people? Is this too much to ask for?” he said.
It indeed may be too much to ask for, given the realities of Ukraine’s situation, the unpredictability of Putin, the uncertainties and fears of the West.
President Biden announced $800 million in military aid for Ukraine soon after Zelensky’s speech. Perhaps that was the plan all along.
But if ever there is a moment which today’s members of Congress, some moved to tears, will never forget, it is likely to be that of watching Zelensky demonstrate what leadership looks like — and what successful messaging looks and sounds like, too.
Whatever happens in this war and to his homeland, the Ukrainian leader has set a standard by which other leaders will be judged, in peace or in war, for years to come. And he and his advisers – using the tools of modern communications – have changed the ways in which future wars will be prosecuted, watched and perhaps won or lost. Whether that will save Ukraine this time, however, remains to be seen.
Joe Concha is a media and politics columnist.
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