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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.”
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.