This story was adapted from the December 22 edition of CNN’s Meanwhile in America, the daily email about US politics for global readers. Click here to read past editions and subscribe.
If ever a leader personified their nation, it is Volodymyr Zelensky.
Unbroken, defiant, a civilian forced to don green military garb, the Ukrainian president spent Wednesday in Washington, DC, on his daring first trip out of his country since Russia’s brutal, unprovoked invasion in February. He expressed heartfelt gratitude for America’s multi-billion dollar weapons and ammunition lifeline – but made clear he’d never stop asking for more.
Appearing with extraordinary symbolism at the White House with President Joe Biden and before a joint meeting of Congress, Zelensky also bore sobering news. A long, bloody battle for freedom, democracy, and ultimately, the survival of a nation Russian President Vladimir Putin says has no right to exist – a fight for which it’s still not clear the free world has the stomach – is nowhere near over.
The comic actor-turned-wartime hero effectively put the fate of millions of Ukrainians in the hands of American lawmakers, taxpayers and families at a time when there is growing skepticism among the incoming Republican House majority about the cost of US involvement.
At an emotional peak of his speech in the House chamber, Zelensky handed Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris a Ukrainian flag he retrieved from the hottest battle front at Bakhmut on Tuesday.
“Our heroes … asked me to bring this flag to you, to the US Congress, to members of the House of Representatives and senators whose decisions can save millions of people,” he said.
“So, let these decisions be taken. Let this flag stay with you.”
That imagery encapsulated Zelensky’s mastery of historical allusion and public relations theater. He argued the war in Ukraine was at a turning point – drawing an analogy to the Battle of Saratoga, a rallying point for an outgunned army against a superpower enemy in America’s revolutionary war. He evoked the heroism of US soldiers dug into freezing foxholes in the Battle of the Bulge during Christmas 1944, which thwarted the last effort by Nazi Germany to repel the allied liberation of Europe. And he cited wartime President Franklin Roosevelt to promise a certain, hard-won victory for freedom.
“The American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory,” Zelensky said, quoting FDR. “The Ukrainian people will win too, absolutely.”
His broader message was that Ukraine’s fight was not just some flashpoint over an ancient grudge on the fringes of the old Soviet empire. It was that his fight is America’s and everyone’s – to hold back tyranny and save global democracy.
“The battle is not only for life, freedom and security of Ukrainians or any other nation that Russia attempts to conquer,” he said. “This struggle will define what world our children and grandchildren will live in and their children and grandchildren.”
Zelensky’s multiple audiences
Like any accomplished politician, Zelensky spoke to multiple audiences at once.
— To Putin, who thought he would topple Zelensky and his nation in a February blitzkrieg, he sent a signal of heroic resistance embraced by the US – after flying to Washington on an US Air Force jet, seeking to show Russians are now fighting a war that can never be won.
— To Americans, Zelensky professed deep thanks for tens of billions of dollars in weapons and aid offered and to come. Implicitly, he argued they couldn’t abandon this gritty, independence hero without also suppressing something of their own patriotic national identify.
— To the incoming House Republican majority, some of whose members want to halt aid, the Ukrainian leader’s hero’s welcome in the chamber suggested they would be shamed if they choose to forsake him.
— To Europeans, enduring their own grim winter of high electricity and heating prices after cutting off from Russian energy, and who may be minded to push for an end to the conflict on Putin’s terms, Zelensky showed that the West is united and that Biden means it when he said Wednesday the US is in “for as long as it takes.”
— And to Ukrainians hunkered down in basements and to soldiers on the front line, he proved that they are not alone as Russian attacks on their power plants effectively weaponize winter.
“We will celebrate Christmas, maybe candlelit. Not because it’s more romantic, no, but because there will be no electricity,” he said. “We’ll celebrate Christmas and even if there is no electricity, the light of our faith, in ourselves, will not be put out.”
Behind the pomp, political questions about US staying power
But Zelensky’s inspirational rhetoric and heroic bearing couldn’t disguise the uncertainties and risks of a war in which the US is effectively now fighting a proxy battle with its nuclear superpower rival, Russia.
Zelensky repeatedly pointed out that despite the largesse of US artillery support and the imminent arrival of high-tech weapons like a Patriot missile battery that Biden unveiled Wednesday, his nation was still outmanned and outgunned.
“What’s going to happen after Patriots are installed? After that, we will send another signal to President Biden that we would like to get more Patriots,” Zelensky said during a White House news conference. In his address to Congress, he said: “We have artillery, yes, thank you. We have it. Is it enough? Honestly, not really.” Both times, he was joking but that didn’t mean that he wasn’t deadly serious. In his address to Congress, Zelensky pleaded with Washington to send more offensive weapons to spur victory.
“I assure you that Ukrainian soldiers can perfectly operate American tanks and planes themselves,” Zelensky told lawmakers.
His comment addressed a rare point of contention amid the ceremony. While Ukraine is desperate for weapons to take the fight harder to Russia, his country’s fate is not the only thing that Biden must consider.
The president has limited the potency of the weapons he sends into the battle, balancing the need to defend a European democracy with the desire not to trigger a disastrous direct clash with Russia and to avoid crossing often invisible red lines whose locations are known only to Putin.
“Now you say, why don’t we just give Ukraine everything there is to give?” Biden said at the White House, explaining that pushing overwhelming force into Ukraine would risk fracturing the transatlantic consensus needed to support the war.
“We’re going to give Ukraine whart it needs to be able to defend itself, to be able to succeed and succeed in the battlefield,” Biden said, arguing that European allies understand the stakes intimately. But he added: “They’re not looking to go to war with Russia. They’re not looking for a third World War.” And nor is he.
Zelensky also had a message for some members of the incoming GOP House majority, who are skeptical of massive aid for Ukraine, and the possible new House speaker, Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who warned again after the speech on Wednesday that he did not support a blank check for Ukraine.
“Your money is not charity. It’s an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way,” Zelensky said.
However, given partisan fury that will erupt in a divided Washington next year, there is no guarantee that America’s lawmakers will even be able to fund their own government – let alone one fighting for its survival thousands of miles away.
Several Republican members who have expressed reservations about aid to Ukraine – like Reps. Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Matt Gaetz of Florida – did not stand to applaud when Zelensky was introduced.
Zelensky’s visit recalled an earlier visit to Washington that started 81 years ago Thursday, by another leader of a dark, bomb-ravaged nation, desperate for US help to turn the tide toward victory over totalitarianism. Pelosi, likely presiding over her final great congressional occasion, recalled how her father was in the House, as a Maryland congressman, when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill addressed Congress on December 26, 1941. Zelensky borrowed one of the great statesman’s greatest lines, as he also presented himself as the symbol of a nation’s defiance.
“Ukraine holds its lines and will never surrender,” he said.