As Vladimir Putin presses on with his unprovoked assault on neighboring Ukraine, that country’s leader – Volodymyr Zelensky – addressed members of the US Congress via satellite Wednesday to make his case for more aid for his besieged homeland. But he also suggested international bodies have failed not only in their response to the attack upon his country but as organizations designed to prevent wars in general.
Speaking mostly in Ukrainian but switching to English for his closing remarks, Zelensky began by reminding his audience that Ukrainians “for eight years have been resisting Russian aggression.” Here, he was referring to the beginning of Russian hostilities when Putin in 2014, on former president Barack Obama’s watch, ordered the illegal annexation of Crimea.
How does one evoke empathy from the political leaders of a nation that has not defended its soil against a foreign invasion force for more than 200 years? The Ukrainian leader evoked the memories of two attacks upon America that came closest to such a scenario: the 1941 Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Recalling these two specific events gave Zelensky the opportunity to draw a certain parallel with the greatest terror Ukraine currently faces; both Pearl Harbor and 9/11 were attacks from the air.
Some 1,000 Russian missiles have been fired into Ukraine, Zelensky pointed out, before requesting the imposition of a no-fly zone over his country. It seemed, though, as if the beleaguered president has all but given up hope that western powers can summon the courage to make this move. So he asked, as an alternative, for the provision of combat aircraft and other weapons to protect Ukrainian cities from aerial attack.
It is hard to imagine Zelensky is particularly impressed with how the US and other western countries have responded so far to Russia’s invasion. Nevertheless, he expressed his gratitude for the support shown so far, for the military aid and for the sanctions, as he knew would be expected of him. But then he said, “I call on you to do more.” He asked for sanctions to be placed on “all politicians in the Russian Federation.” The idea behind this, of course, is to economically punish any and all of Putin’s allies. He also called upon individual members of Congress to pressure American businesses still active in Russia to pull out, so that “Russians do not receive a single penny that they use to destroy people in Ukraine.”
Somewhat understandably, one could argue, Zelensky suggested that existing international alliances – and he was no doubt referring to NATO, the UN, the European Union, and perhaps also the European Parliament – had proved unwilling or unable to adequately respond to international crises. He indicated that, in his view, these alliances had failed:
“[W]e need to move on and do more. We need to create new tools to respond quickly and stop the full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine which began on February 24 – and it would be fair if it ended in day, in 24 hours, that evil would be punished immediately. Today, the world does not have such tools. The war [sic] of the past have prompted our predecessors to create institutions that should protect us from war – but they unfortunately don’t work.”
Zelensky proposed a new international body he dubbed “U-24,” which he envisions as an alliance with the capability to respond to crises within 24 hours – not just military conflicts, but humanitarian disasters and pandemics.
Before his closing remarks, the Ukrainian leader played a dramatic and heart-wrenching video montage of Ukrainian cities as they were before the Russian attack and as they are today. The presentation was graphic in parts – intentionally, of course; he clearly wanted the US lawmakers to see the blood and bodies. The video closed with a simple message: “Close the sky over Ukraine.”
Zelensky concluded by claiming Ukrainians were “fighting for the values of Europe and the world.” He appealed directly to Joe Biden with the suggestion that “being the leader of the world means being the leader of peace.”
With Russian forces closing in on Ukraine’s capital, its president may have felt or believed this was his last opportunity to persuade the US to save his people. Now, he must weather the onslaught and wait to see if his words had the required impact.
~ Read more from Graham J. Noble.