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What was he thinking going into the office?
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is an obvious target for the Russian invaders. And yet there he was, appearing Monday night from his official workplace in Kyiv, in a video that was part selfie and part doomsday presidential address.
The former comedian started things off with what seemed to be a dark joke about the workweek.
“You know, we used to say: Monday is a hard day,” he said, according to a translation. “There is a war in the country. So every day is Monday. And now we are used to the fact that every day and every night are like that.”
Most Americans used to know Zelensky only as a background player – the President of a smaller country who wouldn’t dig up dirt on Joe Biden for Donald Trump in an infamous phone call.
No Trump. But while Trump used social media to beat down opponents like a bully and chip away at confidence in American democracy, Zelensky is using short internet videos and social media posts to build up support for his own democracy as it faces extinction.
The Churchill comparison. Zelensky deserves awe and praise, and the comparisons to Winston Churchill are coming from the left, the right and the media. The thinking is that Zelensky has traded Churchill’s wireless radio and bowler hat for his own smartphone and a green T-shirt.
Zelensky invited the comparison on Tuesday when he riffed on Churchill’s most famous speech, delivered at Britain’s darkest hour and broadcast to inspire the country.
As he addressed the UK House of Commons via video, Zelensky compared Ukraine’s struggle now to Britain’s back then.
England under Churchill wouldn’t bend to the fascists.
Ukraine under Zelensky won’t roll over for Vladimir Putin.
“We will not give up and we will not lose. We will fight until the end at sea, in the air. We will continue fighting for our land, whatever the cost,” he said in his comments translated by an interpreter, echoing some of Churchill’s words.
The House of Commons cheered Zelensky and gave him a standing ovation.
Yet, while the West has imposed crippling sanctions on Russia, it has not yet cut off the supply of Russian oil to Western countries. And it seems unlikely the US will give him the no-fly zone he wants to protect Ukrainians from Russian air power.
There could be some kind of half-measure. Poland has offered its Soviet-era MiG fighter jets to Ukraine via the US if the US will give Poland some US-made aircraft.
A key difference. Churchill held out hope that the US would join World War II, which it ultimately did.
Zelensky has been told definitively that the US will not raise arms against nuclear-armed Russia because it could set off World War III.
Better comparisons. I put the Churchill argument to Douglas Brinkley, the American presidential historian, in a phone call. He rejected them as overwrought.
Churchill had already been a wartime leader, a war hero, a scandal survivor and a prolific writer by the time he took over as prime minister in 1940. He was an imperialist rather than a pure believer in democracy.
It’s more Vaclav Havel than Churchill, argued Brinkley, pointing out that Havel was an absurdist playwright whose movement in Czechoslovakia – the Velvet Revolution – was named for a Western rock band, the Velvet Underground.
“Havel oozed democracy and had seen totalitarianism up close,” Brinkley said. “Nobody thought Havel, a playwright, could end up being a great world leader, and he did.”
He pointed to Lech Walesa, a trade unionist in Poland who ended up being a revolutionary and inspirational leader.
Both men rode a wave of revolution in Eastern Europe in 1989.
He also pointed to Ronald Reagan, who “was making movies with chimpanzees – ‘Bedtime for Bonzo’ – and he ended up being the president to preside over the breakdown of the Berlin Wall.”
“Entertainers have an edge, because they’re able to communicate with people in a time of crisis. That’s what you need most,” Brinkley said – although none of them had a Russian invasion on his hands.
Zelensky will go down in history. The Ukrainian President’s bravery in the face of impossible odds – Putin’s invasion may be clumsy so far, but Russia has a massive army and resources – also has a David and Goliath element to it.
It’s like the lone protester in Tiananmen Square in Beijing, George Washington in Valley Forge or Davy Crockett at the Alamo, Brinkley said.
“It’s the stuff of true grit and courage, and I think Zelensky is going to go down in history as one of these democratic martyrs, you know, a martyr for democracy,” he said.
“He’s holed up, surrounded by enemy forces and is able to communicate with the world in such a smart, a charismatic, passionate and visceral way.”
What has made Zelensky so inspiring – his courage – is what he should now tamp down in order to lead, according to some supporters.
Rep. Mike Waltz of Florida, a Republican and a combat veteran, said Sunday on CNN that Zelensky is “turning out to be a 21st-century Churchill.” But he wants the Ukrainian leader to be a little more careful.
“If you look at history, George Washington kept our revolution alive by staying alive,” Waltz said, later adding, “At this point, I would like to see him go to ground and at this point, his mission is to live and continue to serve as a symbol of resistance.”