Issue of the Week: War, Human Rights

President Volodymyr Zelensky, US Congress, 12.21.22


Time is usually required for the perspective to declare an event centrally historic.

Not this event.

It was announced tonight that Volodymyr Zelensky, President of Ukraine, is enroute from Kyiv to Washington D.C. to meet with President Biden and to give a speech to a joint session of Congress.

The trip, Zelensky’s first time leaving Ukraine in the 300 days since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, was kept secret for obvious security reasons. Speaker Nancy Pelosi told members of Congress to come to a joint session for an important meeting tomorrow without initially saying Zelensky would be there.

The reason this is so centrally historic is that Ukraine is the tip of the spear in the global war between democracy and autocracy. And the US is the tip of the spear of support for Ukraine.

Our own travels and reports related to this have been ongoing.

The irony of the convergence of this event–as the last act of the Pelosi-led Congress before the Republicans take control (barely, and it appears chaotically) on the same day another historic event occurs, the release of the final report of the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol (which just recommended that the Department of Justice criminally indict a former president, Donald Trump, for the first time in history)–cannot be overstated.

In fact it couldn’t, as they say, be made up in fiction.

The one issue that has brought Democrats and Republicans together in Congress since last February has been vigorous support of Ukraine in fighting against the war of aggression by Russia.

However, the incoming House Republicans consist of more isolationist-sounding or outright Putin supporting-sounding members (or those who have changed their tune)–and intellectually muddled-sounding rhetoric aside–members questioning aid to Ukraine.

Though mainly on the right, or on a new fringe in American politics that seems virtually psychotic, a few can be found on the left as well. The parallels with enablers of avoiding confrontation with the Third Reich are impossible to avoid.

The majority will probably still stand by Ukraine (of Democrats combined with Republicans almost certainly) and the large majority of both Democrats and Republicans in the Senate will clearly do so–but economic hardship at home mixed with poltics and polarization can always chip away at support, even when recklessly risking national and global security.

Zelensky, who is rightfully a global icon of courage and clarity in the fight for freedom, clearly knows this, and has timed his visit accordingly–supported by those in the White House and Congress who support him.

And at the same time as his fight on the world stage for democracy is on the line, the fight in the US for democracy after the attempt to end it in America in the aftermath of the 2020 election is also still on the line.

There are many rivers to cross before this is all over. And the planet and all life on it may be incinerated in more ways than one, or the forces of dictatorship and chaos and incomprehensible suffering may prevail.

For a while.

But in the end, we believe democracy, equality, security and basic human rights for all will prevail worldwide.

There could be no more apt metaphorical poetry for the moment than in the fact that tomorrow is the Winter Solstice in the Northern Hemisphere. Just as we noted the same at the Spring Equinox right after Russia’s most recent aggression against Ukraine, and against deomocracy and human rights, had begun.

Now, from the darkest day of the year to the begining of a little more light every day.

We leave room here for reports in a few hours on Zelensky’s  visit and speech:

(Update: Here is the front page article in The New York Times for December 22, written December 21, and the transcript of Zelensky’s December 21 speech to Congress.)

“U.S. Aid Is ‘Not Charity,’ Zelensky Tells Congress as a Lengthy War Looms”Michael D. Shear and

President Volodymyr Zelensky described military assistance for Ukraine as an investment in global security and democracy in the face of Russian aggression.

Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, on the dais, hold a blue-and-yellow Ukrainian flag with signatures on it.
Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi hold a Ukrainian flag signed by soldiers on the front line, delivered by President Volodymyr Zelensky.Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times
WASHINGTON — President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine delivered an emotional wartime appeal to a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday night, telling Americans that “your money is not charity” and vowing that his people would eventually secure an improbable victory against Russia on behalf of all free nations.

“Against all odds and doom-and-gloom scenarios, Ukraine did not fall,” Mr. Zelensky said in halting but forceful English from the dais in the House chamber, where he was greeted with extended applause from lawmakers.

“Ukraine is alive and kicking,” he said. “And it gives me good reason to share with you our first joint victory: We defeated Russia in the battle for minds of the world.”

In blunt terms, Mr. Zelensky pleaded for more military assistance from the lawmakers, who are poised to approve $45 billion in additional aid by the end of the week, bringing the total over a year to nearly $100 billion. His message: Your support has kept President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia from overrunning our country. Now keep it coming.

“We have artillery, yes, thank you,” he said. “We have it. Is it enough? Honestly, not really.” The money, he added, was not charity. “It’s an investment,” he said.

Mr. Zelensky’s visit to Washington — kept secret until the eve of his arrival for security reasons — was a dramatic show of confidence by Ukraine’s leader, who had not left his country since Mr. Putin began his assault 300 days ago.

In the space of 24 hours, just days before Christmas, Mr. Zelensky flew from the battered front lines of a country plunged into darkness by Russian air attacks to the marble-lined rooms of the White House and the Capitol, where he repeatedly thanked Americans for being partners in Ukraine’s battle to survive.

President Volodymyr Zelensky shaking President Biden's hand on a red carpet near a black S.U.V. as Dr. Jill Biden and military guards stand nearby.
President Biden told Mr. Zelensky that his people “inspire the world” and he blamed President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia for trying to “use winter as a weapon.”

Dressed in his wartime uniform of an olive green sweater and cargo pants, Mr. Zelensky began his speech by insisting that the lengthy standing ovation was “too much for me.” He ended it just over 20 minutes later by delivering a blue and gold Ukrainian battle flag to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who in return handed him a framed American flag that had flown over the Capitol earlier in the day in honor of his visit.

The American flag in his right hand, Mr. Zelensky jabbed his left fist into the air triumphantly.

“We stand we fight and we will win because we are united — Ukraine, America and the entire free world,” he said. “May God protect our brave troops and citizens. May God forever bless the United States of America. Merry Christmas and a happy, victorious New Year.”

His speech at the Capitol capped a remarkable day of urgent, personal diplomacy that began with more than two hours of closed-door meetings with President Biden at the White House, where both men reaffirmed their determination to defend Ukraine against Russian forces, who invaded in February.

Standing side by side in the East Room with Ukraine’s flag hanging next to gleaming Christmas decorations, Mr. Biden and Mr. Zelensky faced reporters and pledged to continue fighting Russia’s invasion to force an end to Mr. Putin’s unwarranted aggression.

Mr. Zelensky warned that his country was digging in for a long, cold winter of war and had little hope of securing a just peace with the “terrorists” who are battering his people.

“The longer the war lasts, the longer this aggression lasts, there will be more parents who live for the sake of vengeance, or revenge,” Mr. Zelensky said through an interpreter, standing at a podium next to Mr. Biden.

“So there can’t be any just peace in the war that was imposed on us,” he added.

Mr. Biden pledged a united front with Mr. Zelensky, promising that “we will stay with you for as long as it takes.”

“The American people know that if we stand by in the face of such blatant attacks on liberty and democracy, and the core principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, the world would surely face worse consequences,” Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Zelensky, inside the Capitol building, looks up at the dome while surrounded by lawmakers, staff and photographers.
Both Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Biden must continue to build support among American voters and lawmakers. Credit…Haiyun Jiang/The New York Times

But both leaders sounded grim about the prospects for an end to the conflict any time soon. Mr. Biden said it was critical to “stand together through 2023,” suggesting another year of war in the heart of Europe. Mr. Zelensky offered a dire assessment of the months ahead: “We need to survive this winter,” he said. “We need to protect our people.”

Mr. Zelensky is certain to get some, but not all, of what he wants before he heads home, barely 10 hours after arriving in Washington.

Mr. Biden on Wednesday announced delivery of a Patriot missile battery to help Ukraine defend against attacks from the sky, but the administration is still refusing longer-range weapons that could strike deep into Russia and potentially draw the United States into direct conflict with Mr. Putin and his military.

Mr. Zelensky’s outstretched hand has rankled some Biden administration officials at times during the past year. Wednesday’s appearance at the White House offered a glimpse of the transactional nature of the relationship between the two men as Mr. Zelensky acknowledged what he would do after receiving a Patriot missile battery from the United States to help defend Ukraine from air attacks.

“After that we will send another signal to President Biden that we would like to get more Patriots,” he said, to scattered laughter in the room.

The aside underscored both the human dynamic at play between the two men and Mr. Biden’s fears that providing too much military assistance, too quickly, could unleash a broader conflict with Russia and the West that would have even more dangerous consequences.

Later, when a reporter from Ukraine asked Mr. Biden why he didn’t just give Mr. Zelensky all the weapons he wanted, Mr. Biden quipped: “His answer is yes,” pointing at the Ukrainian president.

“I agree!” Mr. Zelensky responded quickly in English, prompting laughter from the audience.

The visit to the White House comes as both sides gird for months of continued fighting. In Russia, officials warned that deliveries of new U.S. weapons would lead “to an aggravation of the conflict,” and Mr. Putin vowed that his government would provide “everything that the army asks for — everything” in its search for conquest.

“President Zelensky’s visit here is at least partially, maybe primarily, designed to bolster that support and rejuvenate the enthusiasm for Ukraine’s success,” said William B. Taylor Jr., who served as ambassador to Ukraine from 2006 to 2009. “That is all going to be necessary for the Ukrainians to be able to pre-empt a Russian offensive.”

“The timing is perfect,” he said.

For Mr. Biden, the highly orchestrated visit is an opportunity to remind Americans why he has committed the United States’ Treasury — though not its soldiers — to defending the borders of a country a continent away. It is critical, he argues, to stand up for the rights of sovereign nations when international law is violated.

That decision has not come without sacrifices and political cost for Mr. Biden, who rightly predicted before the war started that Americans would suffer economic consequences as the ramifications of the first war in Europe in decades rippled across the world. Gas and food prices spiked, helping to send inflation soaring in the United States and elsewhere.

Now, after rallying dozens of nations to oppose Russia’s invasion, Mr. Biden finds himself needing to hold that coalition together for longer than anyone inside the White House imagined at the start of the war. And he faces a concerted effort by Mr. Putin to break the alliance by restricting energy resources and attacking civilian areas in Ukraine.

“The most important part of this visit might be to combat Putin’s belief that time is on his side in the war,” said Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Putin can’t win in the battlefield so what he’s trying to do is break the will of the Ukrainian people by his attacks on civilian areas, and he’s trying to break Europe’s will by energy denial.”

During his address to Congress, Mr. Zelensky said Ukraine shared values with the United States and was fighting “for our common victory against this tyranny.”

Ahead of their meeting on Wednesday, Mr. Zelensky presented Mr. Biden with a cross for military merit, an award that he said was given to him by a soldier on the front lines in Ukraine. The soldier, a captain, said Mr. Zelensky should give it to the “very brave president” who had saved many lives in their country.

“Undeserved, but much appreciated,” Mr. Biden replied in a moment that underscored how the two leaders are intertwined in the ongoing conflict.

But Mr. Biden and Mr. Zelensky must continue to build support among American voters and lawmakers, some of whom have begun to have doubts about the wisdom of an open-ended commitment to a conflict that shows no signs of ending.

There remains widespread bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for financially supporting Ukraine in its war against Russia, and the majority of Republicans have rallied behind the aid. Some in the party have, however, pushed for greater oversight of the money being sent to Ukraine and others have questioned how much the country really needs.

Some Republican lawmakers in Congress have indicated that they will vote later this week against a $1.7 trillion government spending bill that includes the money for Ukraine. After deadlocking over a pandemic immigration rule, the Senate adjourned on Wednesday night without voting on the bill.

Representative Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican leader in the House, told reporters recently that “I’m not for a blank check for anything. This is hardworking taxpayer money. And I want to make sure whatever funding we spend goes to the right places.”

Still, during Wednesday night’s speech, Mr. McCarthy applauded for Mr. Zelensky.

There is growing evidence that Americans in both parties are weary of the ongoing conflict. Some Democrats have been hearing from constituents who question the routine infusions of aid and are pressing Biden administration officials to say how they think the conflict will end — and when.

During his remarks, Mr. Zelensky portrayed the war gripping his country in stark terms.

He evoked World War II, and U.S. Army forces holding back Hitler’s forces in the Battle of the Bulge during Christmas 1944. Ukraine, he said, is doing the same in Christmas 2022, holding back Putin’s forces, which have been targeting civilian infrastructure with missiles and Iranian drones.

“In two days we will celebrate Christmas, maybe candlelit, not because it’s more romantic, no, but because there will be no electricity,” he said, describing his people as too proud to complain about their situation. He compared Ukraine’s current war to America’s war of independence.

“We Ukrainians will also go through our war of independence and freedom with dignity and success,” he said, prompting a roar of applause from the lawmakers.

Reporting was contributed by Emily Cochrane in Washington, Anton Troianovski in Berlin and Andrew E. Kramer in Kyiv.

Michael D. Shear is a veteran White House correspondent and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who was a member of team that won the Public Service Medal for Covid coverage in 2020. He is the co-author of “Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration.” @shearm

Zolan Kanno-Youngs is a White House correspondent covering a range of domestic and international issues in the Biden White House, including homeland security and extremism. He joined The Times in 2019 as the homeland security correspondent. @KannoYoungs

. . .

Full Transcript of Zelensky’s Speech Before Congress

The Ukrainian president delivered an emotional appeal for further American support, vowing that his country would prevail in its war with Russia.

President Volodymyr Zelensky at a podium as Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi stood and clapped behind him.
“Your money is not charity,” President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine told Congress on Wednesday, but rather an investment in “global security and democracy.”Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine spoke before a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday night, delivering in halting but forceful English an impassioned speech that thanked the United States for its support in his nation’s war against Russia and vowed victory as he pleaded for further aid. The following is a transcript of his remarks, as recorded by The New York Times.

Thank you so much. Thank you so much for that. Thank you. It’s too much for me. All this for our great people. Thank you so much.

Dear Americans, in all states, cities and communities, all those who value freedom and justice, who cherish it as strongly as we Ukrainians in our cities, in each and every family, I hope my words of respect and gratitude resonate in each American heart.

Madam Vice President, I thank you for your efforts in helping Ukraine. Madam Speaker, you bravely visited Ukraine during the full-fledged war. Thank you very much. Great honor. Thank you.

I am very privileged to be here. Dear members of the Congress, representatives of both parties who also visited Kyiv, esteemed congressmen and senators from both parties who will visit Ukraine, I am sure, in the future; dear representatives of diaspora, present in this chamber, and spread across the country; dear journalists, it’s a great honor for me to be at the U.S. Congress and speak to you and all Americans.

Against all odds and doom-and-gloom scenarios, Ukraine didn’t fall. Ukraine is alive and kicking. Thank you. And it gives me good reason to share with you our first, first joint victory: We defeated Russia in the battle for minds of the world. We have no fear, nor should anyone in the world have it. Ukrainians gained this victory, and it gives us courage which inspires the entire world.

Americans gained this victory, and that’s why you have succeeded in uniting the global community to protect freedom and international law. Europeans gained this victory, and that’s why Europe is now stronger and more independent than ever. The Russian tyranny has lost control over us. And it will never influence our minds again.

Yet, we have to do whatever it takes to ensure that countries of the Global South also gain such victory. I know one more, I think very important, thing: The Russians will stand a chance to be free only when they defeat the Kremlin in their minds. Yet, the battle continues, and we have to defeat the Kremlin on the battlefield, yes.

This battle is not only for the territory, for this or another part of Europe. The battle is not only for life, freedom and security of Ukrainians or any other nation which Russia attempts to conquer. This struggle will define in what world our children and grandchildren will live, and then their children and grandchildren.

It will define whether it will be a democracy of Ukrainians and for Americans — for all. This battle cannot be frozen or postponed. It cannot be ignored, hoping that the ocean or something else will provide a protection. From the United States to China, from Europe to Latin America, and from Africa to Australia, the world is too interconnected and interdependent to allow someone to stay aside and at the same time to feel safe when such a battle continues.

Our two nations are allies in this battle. And next year will be a turning point, I know it, the point when Ukrainian courage and American resolve must guarantee the future of our common freedom, the freedom of people who stand for their values.

Ladies and gentlemen — ladies and gentlemen, Americans, yesterday before coming here to Washington, D.C., I was at the front line in our Bakhmut. In our stronghold in the east of Ukraine, in the Donbas. The Russian military and mercenaries have been attacking Bakhmut nonstop since May. They have been attacking it day and night, but Bakhmut stands.

Last year — last year, 70,000 people lived here in Bakhmut, in this city, and now only few civilians stay. Every inch of that land is soaked in blood; roaring guns sound every hour. Trenches in the Donbas change hands several times a day in fierce combat, and even hand fighting. But the Ukrainian Donbas stands.

Russians — Russians use everything, everything they have against Bakhmut and other our beautiful cities. The occupiers have a significant advantage in artillery. They have an advantage in ammunition. They have much more missiles and planes than we ever had. It’s true, but our defense forces stand. And — and we all are proud of them.

The Russians’ tactic is primitive. They burn down and destroy everything they see. They sent thugs to the front lines. They sent convicts to the war. They threw everything against us, similar to the other tyranny, which is in the Battle of the Bulge. Threw everything it had against the free world, just like the brave American soldiers which held their lines and fought back Hitler’s forces during the Christmas of 1944. Brave Ukrainian soldiers are doing the same to Putin’s forces this Christmas.

Ukraine — Ukraine holds its lines and will never surrender. So, so, here the front line, the tyranny which has no lack of cruelty against the lives of free people — and your support is crucial, not just to stand in such fight but to get to the turning point to win on the battlefield.

We have artillery, yes. Thank you. We have it. Is it enough? Honestly, not really. To ensure Bakhmut is not just a stronghold that holds back the Russian Army, but for the Russian Army to completely pull out, more cannons and shells are needed. If so, just like the Battle of Saratoga, the fight for Bakhmut will change the trajectory of our war for independence and for freedom.

If your Patriots stop the Russian terror against our cities, it will let Ukrainian patriots work to the full to defend our freedom. When Russia — when Russia cannot reach our cities by its artillery, it tries to destroy them with missile attacks. More than that, Russia found an ally in this — in this genocidal policy: Iran. Iranian deadly drones sent to Russia in hundreds — in hundreds became a threat to our critical infrastructure. That is how one terrorist has found the other.

It is just a matter of time when they will strike against your other allies if we do not stop them now. We must do it. I believe there should be no taboos between us in our alliance. Ukraine never asked the American soldiers to fight on our land instead of us. I assure you that Ukrainian soldiers can perfectly operate American tanks and planes themselves.

Financial assistance is also critically important, and I would like to thank you, thank you very much, thank you for both financial packages you have already provided us with and the ones you may be willing to decide on. Your money is not charity. It’s an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.

Russia, Russia could stop its aggression, really, if it wanted to, but you can speed up our victory. I know it. And it, it will prove to any potential aggressor that no one can succeed in breaking national borders, no one committing atrocities and reigning over people against their will. It would be naïve to wait for steps towards peace from Russia, which enjoys being a terrorist state. Russians are still poisoned by the Kremlin.

The restoration of international legal order is our joint task. We need peace, yes. Ukraine has already offered proposals, which I just discussed with President Biden, our peace formula, 10 points which should and must be implemented for our joint security, guaranteed for decades ahead and the summit which can be held.

I’m glad to say that President Biden supported our peace initiative today. Each of you, ladies and gentlemen, can assist in the implementation to ensure that America’s leadership remains solid, bicameral and bipartisan. Thank you.

You can strengthen sanctions to make Russia feel how ruinous its aggression truly is. It is in your power, really, to help us bring to justice everyone who started this unprovoked and criminal war. Let’s do it. Let terrorist — let the terrorist state be held responsible for its terror and aggression and compensate all losses done by this war. Let the world see that the United States are here.

Ladies and gentlemen — ladies and gentlemen, Americans, in two days we will celebrate Christmas. Maybe candlelit. Not because it’s more romantic, no, but because there will not be, there will be no electricity. Millions won’t have neither heating nor running water. All of these will be the result of Russian missile and drone attacks on our energy infrastructure.

But we do not complain. We do not judge and compare whose life is easier. Your well-being is the product of your national security; the result of your struggle for independence and your many victories. We, Ukrainians, will also go through our war of independence and freedom with dignity and success.

We’ll celebrate Christmas. Celebrate Christmas and, even if there is no electricity, the light of our faith in ourselves will not be put out. If Russian — if Russian missiles attack us, we’ll do our best to protect ourselves. If they attack us with Iranian drones and our people will have to go to bomb shelters on Christmas Eve, Ukrainians will still sit down at the holiday table and cheer up each other. And we don’t, don’t have to know everyone’s wish, as we know that all of us, millions of Ukrainians, wish the same: Victory. Only victory.

We already built strong Ukraine, with strong people, strong army, strong institutions together with you. We developed strong security guarantees for our country and for entire Europe and the world, together with you. And also together with you, we’ll put in place everyone who will defy freedom. Put-in.

This will be the basis to protect democracy in Europe and the world over. Now, on this special Christmastime, I want to thank you, all of you. I thank every American family which cherishes the warmth of its home and wishes the same warmth to other people. I thank President Biden and both parties, at the Senate and the House, for your invaluable assistance. I thank your cities and your citizens who supported Ukraine this year, who hosted our Ukrainians, our people, who waved our national flags, who acted to help us. Thank you all, from everyone who is now at the front line, from everyone who is awaiting victory.

Standing here today, I recall the words of the president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, which are I think so good for this moment. “The American people, in their righteous might, will win through to absolute victory.” The Ukrainian people will win, too, absolutely.

I know that everything depends on us, on Ukrainian armed forces, yet so much depends on the world. So much in the world depends on you. When I was in Bakhmut yesterday, our heroes gave me the flag, the battle flag, the flag of those who defend Ukraine, Europe and the world at the cost of their lives. They asked me to bring this flag to you, to the U.S. 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, ladies and gentlemen. This flag is a symbol of our victory in this war. We stand, we fight and we will win because we are united — Ukraine, America and the entire free world.

Just one thing, if I can, the last thing — thank you so much, may God protect our brave troops and citizens, may God forever bless the United States of America. Merry Christmas and a happy, victorious New Year. Slava Ukraini. [Glory to Ukraine.]