David Ignatius: Zelensky’s Role on the Washington Stage

From a Washington Post column by David Ignatius headlined “Zelensky’s role on the Washington stage is Ukrainian fighter”:

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s bold Wednesday visit to Washington is an epic piece of theater designed to motivate multiple audiences — in the United States, Europe, Russia and Ukraine itself. The message is simple: With its own bravery in battle and the world’s help, Ukraine will prevail.

By embracing President Biden and addressing a clamorous joint session of Congress, Zelensky will send a riposte to Moscow that’s more potent, in some ways, than the Russian drones and missiles pounding his country. Ukraine has allies; it has staying power; NATO isn’t cracking; even in a polarized America, support for Kyiv is bipartisan and sustained.

As you watch Zelensky on the podium before Congress, imagine the rage that Russian President Vladimir Putin must be feeling: His bets are losing. Ukraine, Europe and the United States haven’t splintered. The West isn’t as feeble as he imagined. It’s Russia that is isolated and slipping month by month toward becoming a failed state.

Zelensky’s lightning trip to the United States demonstrates once more his dramatic flair, fused with his personal courage. Those two qualities have made him a great wartime leader — whose small, disheveled figure, combined with an indomitable will, has come to symbolize his nation’s resistance to Russia’s brutal aggression.

Zelensky is the X-factor in Ukraine’s war against Russia. He has a television actor’s sense of timing and gut-wrenching delivery. He was an unlikely president, elected in 2019 to play in real life the television character in his series, “Servant of the People”: an ordinary citizen who dreams of transforming his corrupt, battered country.

His visit to Washington won’t alter the fundamentals of the battlefield by drawing the United States openly into the conflict with Russia. “The United States is not sending forces to Ukraine to directly fight the Russians,” a senior administration official stressed on Tuesday night. Biden’s insistence on avoiding a World War III confrontation is something he “hasn’t wavered from, and he won’t waver from it tomorrow, or next month, or next year,” the official added.

Rather than create a new strategy, Zelensky will cement his current one with this trip. The United States will continue supplying Ukraine with ever-increasing volumes of weapons to recover the territory Russia has seized, “for as long as it takes,” as the senior administration official put it, repeating Biden’s oft-stated formula. The joint session of Congress is likely to feature images of Republicans cheering Zelensky and eagerly embracing his cause. That will be the most important deliverable of the trip.

For Europe, which faces a winter of heating and electricity shortages, rising prices and sagging economic growth, the message from Washington will be: Stay the course. After French President Macron’s successful visit to Washington this month, there’s no sign of strong European dissent from this unified NATO position.

Through this year of appalling Russian aggression, the world has watched Zelensky discover himself as a leader. I was in the audience at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 19, five days before Russia invaded, when Zelensky, looking tiny onstage but speaking in a big voice, chided other world leaders: “How did it happen that in the 21st century, Europe is at war again and people are dying?… How did we get to the biggest security crisis since the Cold War?” The audience was first silent, then roared its support.

Many in the West thought that the actor-turned-politician would bolt Kyiv when Russian tanks and elite paratroopers assaulted the city. I‘m told that U.S. officials queried Zelensky and his defense chiefs about moving from the capital to safer quarters. Zelensky’s unforgettable retort, delivered through the Ukrainian Embassy in London: “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.”

And then the moment when Zelensky became, in his rumpled green jacket, a Churchillian figure: A video posted Feb. 26, two days after the invasion, in which he stood defiant outside his presidential bunker and affirmed: “I am here. We are not putting down arms. We will be defending our country, because our weapon is truth, and our truth is that this is our land, our country, our children, and we will defend all of this.”

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff , likes to quote a comment attributed to Napoleon: “In war, the moral is to the physical as three is to one.” Zelensky is the embodiment of that everlasting truth.

As Putin watches Zelensky’s bravura performance in Washington, he will surely say to himself, perhaps with grudging admiration: This little man has survived the worst. He isn’t afraid. His allies stand with him. So the question becomes, how does this war end without a catastrophe for Russia?

David Ignatius writes a twice-a-week foreign affairs column for The Washington Post. His latest novel is “The Paladin.”

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