A version of this story appeared in CNN’s What Matters newsletter. To get it in your inbox, sign up for free here.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky beamed into Congress on Wednesday, invoking FDR and MLK and 9/11 and Pearl Harbor in a stirring speech, and called on President Joe Biden to become the leader of the free world.
Speaking in English, Zelensky said democratic nations and their leaders must look beyond their borders.
“It is not enough to be the leader of the nation,” he said. “Today takes to be the leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.”
A direct message to Biden
This was a direct charge to Biden, who has framed his entire presidency as a fight between democracies like the US and Ukraine against autocracies like Russia.
Later, in an interview with NBC News, Zelensky answered Biden’s concern that more direct military aid will cause world war III.
“Nobody knows whether it may have already started. And what is the possibility of this war if Ukraine will fall, in case Ukraine will?” he asked, drawing a connection between today and the start of World War II.
What Zelensky wants
I went line by line through the speech to Congress, annotating it with context. Read that here.
Zelensky read off a list of things Americans can do to stand up for his democracy – and democracy in general.
One need is a nonstarter
No-fly zone. It’s not going to happen, since American officials say it would trigger world war III. And military experts question whether it will actually help in the war, as most of Russia’s attacks are from the ground. But Zelensky keeps returning to this idea.
On the no-fly zone topic, there is some more pressure on Biden. While most lawmakers still acknowledge it would be too provocative against nuclear-armed Russia, Republican Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, a member of leadership, went further than most in his party.
“President Biden needs to make a decision TODAY: either give Ukraine access to the planes and anti-aircraft defense systems it needs to defend itself, or enforce a no-fly zone to close Ukrainian skies to Russian attacks,” Scott said in a statement.
Other needs are works in progress
Missile defense systems. Aside from the no-fly zone, Zelensky specifically mentioned Soviet-made S-300 air defense missile systems.
NATO countries, with help from the US, appear to be working on getting other Soviet-era systems with lower altitude range to Ukraine, but they’re not there yet. The State Department is working to find S-300 systems in other countries and figure out how to provide them to Ukraine, according to CNN’s reporting.
One need is not entirely clear
Aircraft. While the Biden administration had earlier seemed to reject the idea of Poland donating Soviet-era MiG fighter jets to Ukraine in exchange for used American F-16s, after Zelensky’s speech some lawmakers called on the administration to reverse course.
There is growing support on Capitol Hill for the aircraft and missile systems.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said he’ll introduce a resolution pushing the White House to make it happen.
“So the bottom line is, while a NATO no-fly zone seems to be a bridge too far for me and the administration, there is bipartisan support for sending a package that includes fighter jets and air defense systems to the Ukraine immediately, so that we can have a Ukrainian no-fly zone manned by Ukrainian pilots and manned by missile systems in the hands of the Ukrainian military,” Graham told reporters Wednesday on Capitol Hill.
Biden spoke not long after Zelensky’s remarks to praise the Ukrainian leader for his remarkable speech and to sign authorization for an additional $800 million in security assistance for Ukraine – part of $13.6 billion the US already approved that was contained in a massive spending bill signed into law this week. The $800 million in security assistance that Biden announced includes funding for weapons and drones.
But Biden dodged a question about the MiG trade.
“I’m not going to comment on that right now. I’m not going to comment now on anything other than what I’ve told you today,” he said to reporters.
New world order
Besides Zelensky’s eloquence, even through a translator, in appealing directly to Americans’ sense of democracy and freedom, I was particularly interested in his proposal for a new world order.
“The war of the past have prompted our predecessors to create institutions that should protect us from war, but they unfortunately don’t work,” Zelensky said. He was probably referring to NATO, which won’t send troops to protect nonmember Ukraine, and the United Nations, which can’t get past Russia’s veto power on the Security Council.
“We see it, you see it, so we need new ones, new institutions, new alliances, and we offer them,” Zelensky said.
A retreat from NATO
In recent days, Zelensky has signaled that Ukraine likely will not soon, or ever, join NATO, a prospect that Russian President Vladimir Putin viewed as a “hostile act” and a threat to Russia.
Zelensky’s acknowledgment could be entree to more constructive peace talks with Russia.
A big idea instead
But Zelensky called for a new association: “U-24 united for peace, a union of responsible countries that have the strength and consciousness to stop conflicts immediately, provide all the necessary assistance in 24 hours, if necessary, even weapons if necessary, sanctions, humanitarian support, political support, finances, everything you need to keep the peace and quickly save the world, save lives.”
In addition, he said it could help react to “natural disasters” (earthquakes?), “man-made disasters” (climate change?) and epidemics like Covid-19.
If Russia’s invasion has essentially broken the old world system – it has at least tested the sovereignty of nations – Zelensky’s idea is indeed interesting.
Big ideas don’t happen overnight, however, especially during a war. Bookmark this one to see if people are still talking about it in the future.
Bigger than NATO
So much of the reporting on Putin’s motivations around Ukraine has revolved around NATO. But we may come to learn that Putin’s opposition to Ukraine joining NATO was a smokescreen. He really opposes flourishing democracies near his borders, according to Ivo Daalder, former US ambassador to NATO, who appeared on CNN after Zelensky’s speech.
“(Putin) wants to control Ukraine so it doesn’t become a vibrant democracy, so it doesn’t become part of the European family of nations,” Daalder said, arguing that is the real threat to Putin.
Ironically, Putin’s invasion has resulted in a more unified Europe, but at the expense of so much in Ukraine.
Certainly a new world era
Sen. Jack Reed told CNN’s John King that we are entering uncharted geopolitical territory, something more complicated than the ’80s or ‘90s, since China and Russia will both be significant nuclear powers. He didn’t mention it, but both China and Russia want to extend their influence beyond their borders.
“This is the first time in the history of the world where we’ll have a trilateral nuclear situation,” the Rhode Island Democrat said.