As he wages an existential struggle for his own nation, Zelensky is tapping into the patriotic symbolism, historic traumas and idealized self-images people have about their countries to encapsulate the desperate plight of his own.
His masterful political conceit, on display in his address to the US Congress on Wednesday, is designed to frame the war not as a confusing and far-off dispute bound up in the confusing history of greater Russia but as everybody’s war.
So Zelensky made the conflict relatable to Americans he wants to pressure President Joe Biden to do more by comparing Russia’s unstoppable airborne attacks to 9/11 — or the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. He skillfully tweaked America’s national psyche in invoking Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” refrain to bring alive Ukraine’s dream: sovereignty and independence.
As Western leaders worry about being dragged into a direct shooting clash with nuclear-armed Russia, Zelensky is arguing that a broader, existential war is already underway that involves everyone — for freedom, democracy and human dignity.
And as he switched into English at the end of his speech to personally address Biden, after referring to Prime Minister Trudeau by his first name “Justin” in a similar address to Canadian lawmakers on Tuesday, the deeper, political purpose of Zelensky’s rhetorical strategy became clear.
He is effectively putting those leaders on personal notice that his fate, those of his people and the continued existence of Ukraine will live on their conscience — and depends on their willingness to defend the principles for which they speak and on which their democracies rest.
“I’m addressing the President Biden: You are the leader of the nation, 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,” Zelensky said.
Desperate pleas hit geopolitical reality
The Ukrainian leader is on a virtual tour addressing national legislatures as he desperately seeks measures like a no-fly zone and more sophisticated weapons as Russia’s troops mercilessly pound civilian areas and besiege cities.
His message is rooted in the spirit of the headline French newspaper Le Monde carried after the September 11 attacks in 2001 “Nous sommes tous Américains” — “we are all Americans.” While, this time, Ukrainians are under attack — the values for which they are fighting, freedom from tyranny, democracy and the right to die in old age when their time comes as Zelensky put it, are shared by everyone.
As he has in addresses to the European parliament, as well as British and Canadian lawmakers, Zelensky on Wednesday leaned heavily into the national self-perception and patriotic mythology of his audience.
“Remember Pearl Harbor, the terrible morning of December 7, 1941, when your sky was black from the planes attacking you. Just remember it,” Zelensky said, wearing a T-shirt in combat green as spoke from the under-fire Ukrainian capital Kyiv.
“Remember September 11th, a terrible day in 2001 when evil tried to turn your cities, independent territories, into battlefields. When innocent people were attacked, attacked from air,” Zelensky added.
“Just like nobody else expected it, you could not stop it. Our country experienced the same every day.”
Zelensky point is that the horror of airborne attack is shocking, indiscriminate and unstoppable and is now raining death from the skies of Ukraine just as it did against Americans in Hawaii and New York City and the Washington area. The power and logic of his argument was impossible to ignore. But part of Ukraine and Zelensky’s tragedy is the reality of geopolitics. Biden and most leaders in Congress have ruled out the idea of a no-fly zone over non-NATO member Ukraine as too risky since it could force US pilots to shoot down Russian jets. Such confrontations could trigger a cycle of escalation that would risk World War III and a nuclear exchange that could put humanity at risk.
Still, Zelensky’s powerful national imagery may be more decisive in building support for a plan also blocked by the administration, for former Warsaw Pact members of NATO to send Soviet-era jets to Ukraine.
A political transformation
Zelensky was often seen as naive and a little out of his depth when he took office. Ex-President Donald Trump, who remains a hero to many of the GOP members who watched Zelensky’s address in rapt silence, even tried to extort him with the promise of US military aid to try to force him to open a politically motivated investigation into Biden and his son Hunter. The campaign season dirty trick led to Trump’s first impeachment. But after initially downplaying the chances of a Russian invasion — to the frustration of the United States — Zelensky, with his own life in peril, has met his moment like few modern political leaders.
His refusal to leave Kyiv — encapsulated by his comment, “I don’t need a ride, I need more ammunition” — galvanized the heroic Ukrainian resistance to the invasion, contrasted with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s isolation in the Kremlin, and inspired a stronger than expected international response.
His ability to corral the foreign front against Russia rests on deft rhetorical devices like his powerful allusion Wednesday to the civil rights movement in a direct appeal to American lawmakers who often invoke Dr. King but do not always live up to its spirit and the obligations demanded by his legacy.
“‘I have a dream’ — these words are known to each of you. Today, I can say: I have a need, I need to protect our sky. I need your decision, your help, which means exactly the same, the same you feel when you hear the words ‘I have a dream.’ “
Zelensky’s facility with patriotic psychology — he also invoked the faces of great US Presidents on Mount Rushmore to express shared values of democracy, freedom and the rule of law — is by now not a surprise.
On Tuesday, he asked Canadian lawmakers to imagine what it would be like if Vancouver was under siege or if Toronto’s trademark CN Tower was bombed. When he spoke to the European Parliament, he channeled the bloc’s sense that it encapsulates a lofty purpose above purely national principles. Ukraine may not yet be part of the European Union, he argued, but it is already doing more than any other member to safeguard its values.
“Do prove that you are indeed Europeans, and then life will win over death and light will win over darkness,” he said.
And in addressing the British House of Commons, Zelensky drew analogies to wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill and the country’s lonely stand against Nazi tyranny in 1940. “We will fight in the forests, on the shores, in the streets,” he said, echoing a famous Churchill speech in which the great statesman also appealed for help from the “New World” — America — much as Zelensky is doing now.
Zelensky, who has become something of a Shakespearean hero himself, coined the playwright’s most famous line “To be, or not to be” in another appeal to the national pride of Britons. As he did in that address and also on Wednesday, he pleaded with the world to honor the choice of Ukrainians who had chosen life and sovereignty — or in Hamlet’s words simply, “to be.”