Zelensky's grit and refusal to give up are typical of the country he leads, as the Ukrainian president spent Wednesday in Washington, DC, on his first trip outside of his country since Russia's brutal, unprovoked invasion in February. He was unbroken and defiant, and he had to wear green military clothes even though he was a civilian.
He thanked America from the bottom of his heart for giving him billions of dollars worth of weapons and ammunition, but he made it clear that he would never stop asking for more.
Zelensky brought sad news when he showed up at the White House with President Joe Biden and in front of a joint meeting of Congress. There is still a long way to go in a bloody fight for freedom, democracy, and the survival of a country that Russian President Vladimir Putin says has no right to exist. It is still not clear that the free world has the stomach for this fight.
The comedian-turned-war hero put the fate of millions of Ukrainians in the hands of American lawmakers, taxpayers, and families at a time when the incoming Republican majority in the House is becoming more skeptical about how much US involvement will cost.
At the most emotional part of his speech in the House chamber on Tuesday, Zelensky gave Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris a Ukrainian flag that he had taken from the hottest battle front at Bakhmut.
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. So, let these decisions be taken. Let this flag stay with you.- Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky
This image showed how well Zelensky knew how to use historical references and public relations theater. He said that the war in Ukraine was at a turning point, comparing it to the Battle of Saratoga in the American Revolutionary War, which was a rallying point for an outgunned army fighting against a superpower. He talked about the bravery of US soldiers who dug foxholes in the freezing cold during the Battle of the Bulge in December 1944. This was the last attempt by Nazi Germany to stop the allies from freeing Europe. And he used a quote from Franklin Roosevelt during World War II to say that freedom would win, but it would be hard-won.
Zelensky said that FDR was right when he said, "'The American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.' The Ukrainian people will win too, absolutely."
His main point was that the fight in Ukraine was not just a spark over an old grudge on the edge of the old Soviet empire. It was that his fight, to stop tyranny and save global democracy, is America's and everyones.
The battle is not only for life, freedom and security of Ukrainians or any other nation that Russia attempts to conquer. This struggle will define what world our children and grandchildren will live in and their children and grandchildren.- Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky standing on a podium while addressing people in Washington DC
Even Zelensky's rousing speeches and heroic demeanor couldn't hide the uncertainty and dangers of a war in which the US is now fighting a proxy war with Russia, which is a rival nuclear superpower.
Zelensky kept saying that his country was still outmanned and outgunned, even though the US was helping with artillery and high-tech weapons like the Patriot missile battery that Biden showed off on Wednesday were coming soon.
Zelensky said during a White House news conference:
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.- Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky
In his speech to Congress, he said, “We have artillery, yes, thank you. We have it. Is it enough? Honestly, not really.” He was joking both times, but that didn't mean he wasn't dead serious. In his speech to Congress, Zelensky asked Washington to help win the war by sending more offensive weapons.
Zelensky told lawmakers, “I assure you that Ukrainian soldiers can perfectly operate American tanks and planes themselves.”
His comment was about a rare disagreement that had come up during the ceremony. Even though Ukraine needs weapons to fight Russia harder, Biden has to think about more than just the fate of his country.
The president has limited the power of the weapons he sends into battle. He does this to strike a balance between the need to protect a democratic Europe and the desire to avoid a direct conflict with Russia that could be disastrous and to avoid crossing red lines that are often hard to see and whose locations only Putin knows.
“Now you say, why don’t we just give Ukraine everything there is to give?” Biden said at the White House that sending a lot of troops into Ukraine could break the transatlantic agreement that is needed to keep the war going.
Biden said, arguing that European allies know exactly what's at stake:
We’re going to give Ukraine what it needs to be able to defend itself, to be able to succeed and succeed in the battlefield. They’re not looking to go to war with Russia. They’re not looking for a third World War.- United States President Joe Biden
Zelensky also had a message for some of the incoming GOP House majority, who aren't sure about giving Ukraine a lot of money, and for Rep. Kevin McCarthy, who might be the next House speaker. McCarthy said after Zelensky's speech on Wednesday that he didn't support giving Ukraine a blank check.
“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.
But there is no guarantee that America's lawmakers will even be able to fund their own government next year, let alone one that is fighting for its life thousands of miles away. This is because of the partisan anger that will break out in a divided Washington.
Reps. Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Matt Gaetz of Florida, for example, have said they have doubts about giving money to Ukraine, so they did not stand up to cheer when Zelensky was introduced.
Zelensky's trip to Washington reminded people of a trip to the US capital that began on the same day 81 years ago by another leader of a dark, bomb-damaged country who was desperate for US help to turn the tide against totalitarianism.
Pelosi, who was probably presiding over her last big event in Congress, talked about how her father, a Maryland congressman, was in the House on December 26, 1941, when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill spoke to Congress. Zelensky used one of the great statesman's best lines to show that he, too, was the symbol of a country's refusal to give up. “Ukraine holds its lines and will never surrender,” he said.