Thursday, December 22, 2022

Mr. Zelensky Goes to Washington


On the day after Christmas in 1941, less than three weeks after Pearl Harbor and the belated American entry into the Second World War, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed the United States Congress. Churchill had arrived in Washington on December 22. Famously, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt recalled being told by the President “that we would be having some guests visit us.” As she later wrote in The Atlantic: “He told me that I could not know who was coming, nor how many, but I must be prepared to have them stay over Christmas.” (He also told her to "see to it that we had good champagne and brandy in the house and plenty of whiskey.”) On December 23, Roosevelt and Churchill held their first joint press conference of the war. On Christmas Eve, they participated in the traditional lighting of the National Christmas tree, and on Christmas Day, they attended church together. 

Not for as many days, but of similar symbolism and significance, was yesterday's inspirational Christmas-time visit to Washington by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who addressed Congress in "prime time" last night, dressed in the khaki fatigues that have become his trademark uniform throughout the war. Even more than what he said, it was his presence in person, that spoke volumes, highlighting both his heroic stature on the world scene and America's continued commitment to Ukraine's cause.  

The trip was Zelensky's first outside his country since the Russian invasion almost a year ago. From Poland, Zelensky flew in an American military aircraft to Washington, where he spent much of the afternoon at the White House talking with President Biden, followed by a press conference, at which Biden praised Zelensky and the people of Ukraine and denounced Putin's "imperial appetites." He recalled the extent of U.S. and allied assistance to Ukraine so far, and heralded the $45 billion in aid in the Omnibus Bill, which Congress will hopefully pass this week, and he spoke in particular about the Patriot Defense Missile System at last being made available to Ukraine for its defense. Zelensky, for his part, effusively thanked President Biden and the U.S., especially for holding the alliance together against Russia, and also for the Patriots.

All that was prelude, of course, to the address to Congress, which Zelensky delivered in English, speaking for some 25 minutes. It was a powerful evocation of shared values, punctuated by references to Americans fighting the Battle of the Bulge at Christmas 1944 and to the turning point of the American Revolution, the Battle of Saratoga in 1777. (One wonders how many contemporary Americans are as well schooled in our history as Zelensky seems to be.) Obviously well aware of divisions among Americans and within Congress itself, Zelensky appealed directly tot he American people. "Your money is not charity," he reminded his audience. "It is an investment in the global security and democracy."

“This battle cannot be frozen or postponed, it cannot be ignored hoping that the ocean or something else will provide protection. The world is too interconnected and interdependent,” Zelensky said, seemingly taking direct aim at historical American isolationism and its recent resurgence in the Republican party.

Although he did reference his 10-point peace plan, the overall sense of the speech was a rousing call to arms, an appeal for the necessary aid (which is in Congress's power to provide) to push on to the ultimate victory. Zelensky even channelled FDR's famous Pearl Harbor speech: "The American people will win through to absolute victory." Like FDR and Churchill in that long ago but not forgotten conflict, Zelensky was calling for victory, and his call resonated.

Symbolically, the highpoint of the speech was when he presented Speaker Pelosi and Vice president Harris with a signed Ukrainian battle flag (photo). In return, the Speaker presented him with an American flag flown yesterday over the Capitol in his honor.

Obviously, there remain many obstacles and difficulties between now and the final victory. But, last night at least, the signal was being clearly sent to Russian autocrat Vladimir Putin that the U.S. and its NATO allies remain united behind Ukraine.

Photo: Kenny Holston/The New York Times

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