WASHINGTON—Americans have a grand sense of their country’s place in world affairs — fancying themselves not just a big and rich and powerful nation, but one that acts as a moral force guiding the other countries of the globe. People here have often called their president the “leader of the free world.”
Over the past three weeks, that’s a title that many think applies to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as he steadfastly leads his people in response to a brutal, unprovoked Russian invasion that continues to destroy cities and slaughter civilians.
When Zelenskyy addressed the U.S. Congress by video on Wednesday, he appealed to Americans’ sense of their global role — invoking past U.S. tragedies such as Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11, 2001 and calling on President Joe Biden in English. “I’m addressing President Biden. You are the leader of the nation, of your great nation. I wish you to be the leader of the world,” Zelenskyy said.
Ukraine’s fight, he said, was being waged on behalf of the world, “to keep the planet alive. To keep justice in history.”
“Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace,” Zelenskyy said.
Biden was listening, he told reporters at the White House Wednesday afternoon. It was, Biden said, a “convincing and significant speech.” The U.S. president said more humanitarian and military aid was on the way. But the U.S. will not be fulfilling Zelenskyy’s request to send fighter jets to engage with Russians in Ukraine.
As he had in his address to Canada’s Parliament on Tuesday, Zelenskyy appealed to Americans Wednesday to declare and enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine. He showed a video montage during his speech contrasting scenes of preinvasion life in Ukrainian cities with graphic images of the results of Russia’s attacks — bombed-out buildings, maimed children, mass graves. “We are asking for an answer to this terror from the world. Is that a lot to ask? To create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people. Is this too much to ask? A no-fly zone. Russia would not be able to terrorize our cities.”
This is an understandable thing for Zelenskyy to want — his citizens are being killed every day, his country destroyed block by block. Who would not call on their allies to step in and fight with them in such circumstances? Yet for those western allies including Biden, it is seen as too much to ask.
Implementing a NATO- or U.S.-enforced no-fly zone means sending fighter jets to shoot down Russian planes. It would amount to a declaration of war against Russia. That is a conflict that could quickly become World War III, which it is too easy to see becoming a global nuclear conflict.
Zelenskyy understands this, which is likely why he followed his renewed no-fly-zone request with other, lesser pleas. “If this is too much to ask, we offer an alternative,” he said. “I have a dream. I have a need. I need to protect our skies. I need your help, “ he said.
In Biden’s response, he announced he was authorizing $800 million (U.S.) in new assistance to Ukraine — bringing the total committed this week to $1 billion, he said — that includes anti-aircraft systems and munitions for them, including longer-range systems Biden said Zelenskyy has asked for, as well as portable shoulder-mounted anti-armour missiles that Ukraine has been using to destroy Russian tanks. The U.S. is sending more guns and ammunition and grenade launchers and mortar rounds, Biden said.
In his appeal to Congress, Zelenskyy talked about watching more than 100 children killed in a single day. “Peace in your country does not depend only on you and your people. It depends on those next to you, on those who are strong,” he said. “Strong is brave and ready to fight for his citizens as citizens of the world. For human rights. For freedom. The right to live decently and die when your time comes and not when decided by somebody else.”
Many U.S. elected officials in the audience were clearly moved by Zelenskyy’s presentation. Republican Sen. Jodi Ernst, an Iraq War veteran and former military officer, was reportedly moved to tears, saying “it makes me want to throw on my uniform and go help.” Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy tweeted immediately after the speech, “no member of Congress left that room without thinking what more the United States can do to stop this carnage.”
Biden announced that the U.S. would do more, and that it expected to do still more in the future.
Biden’s words about the stakes of the conflict in many ways echoed Zelenskyy’s. “This is a struggle that pits the appetites of an autocrat against humankind’s desire to be free. And let there be no doubt, no uncertainly, no question: America stands with the forces of freedom. We always have, we always will,” Biden said.
However, while Biden spoke of ensuring Russia cannot win. Zelenskyy was focused on stopping Ukraine from suffering further loss.
As Zelenskyy spoke, even as some reports said ceasefire talks may be showing slow progress, his people remained under attack. Wednesday afternoon brought reports of potentially hundreds of Ukrainian civilians trapped in the wreckage of a bombed shelter in Mariupol.
“I see no sense in life if it cannot stop the deaths,” Zelenskyy said. “This is my mission as a leader of my people, and as a leader of my nation.”
Read more about: