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A historic address to Congress and the nation
In the history of momentous occasions at the United States Congress, there has not been anything quite like what we witnessed tonight.
A man. A moment. A nation under siege. Freedom on one side. A ruthless autocracy on the other.
By now, we all know the general story of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky — a former comedian who as his nation's leader has had the mantle of greatness thrust upon him. Through steadfast leadership and uncommon courage, against seemingly all odds, he has stared down a murderous tyrant, Russian President Vladimir Putin, on a bloody battlefield. It is not hyperbole to say that the future of freedom in Europe and beyond stands in the balance.
In his speech tonight, Zelensky appealed to America, in the best of our own courageous traditions. He invoked the Battle of Saratoga, in which a plucky band of revolutionaries stood down the mighty British in our war for independence. And he spoke of the Battle of the Bulge, when U.S. forces countering the Nazis in World War II held the line during a brutal Christmas and New Year from 1944 to 1945. Zelensky's message was not subtle, but it was effective. The Ukrainians, like the Americans, are fighting for freedom against a mighty foe and at great sacrifice.
In making the case for Ukrainian resolve, Zelensky quoted from President Franklin Roosevelt’s speech on December 8, 1941, in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor, when the United States suddenly entered World War II. Roosevelt said that “the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory.” Zelensky said the Ukrainians would do the same. The allusion to “absolute victory” was certainly not a coincidence when some are calling for the Ukrainians to accede to Russian demands.
Make no mistake, behind the fierce and often lofty rhetoric was a careful deployment of strategy. Zelensky wants the United States and other allies to not only maintain their support for the Ukrainian military, but in fact increase it. He said that Ukrainians could drive American tanks and fly American planes, although this country is not likely to provide that level of backing for fear of escalating to a larger regional conflict.
Zelensky needed to show his deep appreciation for the support he has received — and also suggest that this could and should be expanded. He spoke of urgent desperation with untold human suffering. Zelensky painted a compelling picture of Christmases by candlelight due to Russian attacks on Ukraine’s electrical infrastructure. And he spoke of millions of his fellow citizens living without heat or running water in the dark, cold days of winter. It was very effective at showing the depravity of Russian battle plans in their targeting of civilians.
It was heartening to see the rousing support Zelensky received by members of Congress, although there were some notable exceptions on the Republican side of the aisle. By and large, there has been bipartisan backing for Ukraine, but in a nation where everything is ultimately passed through the meat grinder of partisan politics, this cannot be assured.
The delicate balance also is taking place on the global stage. Some allies are wavering. And no one wants a war with Russia. How much to push, how much to support, how much to hold back, will be a constant dilemma in Washington and among our allies.
Today, it is hard to remember that Zelensky was once a supporting character to a story that roiled our own politics. It was he whom President Trump tried to shake down and intimidate, including threatening to hold back military assistance in a quid pro quo. This led to Trump’s first impeachment. How the fortunes of the two men have shifted.
The image tonight that ended the speech, a Ukrainian flag signed by Ukrainian soldiers presented to the United States, is one that will endure. But what symbolism will it come to represent? How will this war end? What will the world look like? Will we be more free or less? Will our world be more stable or more chaotic?
The answers to these questions are unknowable. But as we enter a season when we speak of peace, love, and goodwill to all, we can recognize the heroism and sacrifice of the Ukrainian people on the front lines of freedom.
Zelensky spoke with confidence of Ukrainian victory and a better world. Nothing is assured, but his critics and adversaries have underestimated him at every turn. And listening to him tonight, you can understand why, time and again, he has proven them wrong.
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