As a professional comedian until three years ago, Volodymyr Zelensky knows to tailor his material for different audiences.
As a professional comedian until three years ago, Volodymyr Zelensky knows to tailor his material for different audiences. As president of a nation at war, he’s deployed that skill to great effect on a virtual world tour, inspiring and shaming in equal measure.
Beamed onto giant screens in the National Diet of Japan and, later, France’s National Assembly on Wednesday, Zelensky invited legislators to connect with Ukraine’s plight by playing to their own history and self-image, just as he has now done at least ten times since Russia invaded Ukraine exactly a month ago.
For most leaders, to address the chamber of another democracy is an honor granted once in a political lifetime, if at all. Zelensky drew standing ovations even in Berlin, despite his sharp criticisms, recalling Germany’s World War II guilt as he asked the Bundestag to stop putting business interests over Ukrainian lives so as not to again “have to feel ashamed one day.”
Badly out-gunned by Russia on land, in the air and at sea, the information war is the one arena in which Ukraine is clearly winning. That’s thanks in no small part to Zelensky’s international road show, made possible by the post-Covid normalization of video conferencing, as well as the grim star quality of Zelensky’s unshaven, Khaki-clad — and routinely blunt — appeals.
“This is just huge,” said Alastair Campbell, who as the communications chief of former Prime Minister Tony Blair organized the first ever address to the French legislature by a British leader, in 1998. “We spent an enormous amount of time preparing the speech, the French had their drummers out and I don’t think I had ever seen Tony as nervous.”
Zelensky has been pulling that off multiple times a week, securing invitations by dint of his name recognition and popularity among voters across much of the democratic world. By Tuesday, as he juggled his virtual appearances with speaking to his own nation, leading the war effort and simply staying alive under Russian bombing and alleged assassination attempts, he appeared tired.
“Zelensky is exploiting — and I don’t mean that in a negative sense — the fact that part of their messaging is that we stand by Ukraine,” Campbell said, referring to the politicians he’s addressing. “So part of his messaging is, thank you very much for that, but we want you to do more.”
That balance between gratitude and reproach is hard to achieve, but helped by what Campbell sees as Zelensky’s unusual — for a politician — ability to come across as genuine. At times his appeals appear to have had a direct impact.
Hours after Zelensky’s address to the U.S. Congress, delivered complete with videos of destruction in Ukraine that caused one legislator to call out, “Jesus,” President Joe Biden announced an additional $800 million aid package including armed drones, as well as thousands of anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.
The day after he spoke to the House of Commons, U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said he would send Kyiv an additional 1,615 NLAW anti-tank missiles.
On Thursday, Zelensky is due to join a special NATO summit by video link, as Biden visits Europe. In a video address posted online in English, he also called on people around the world to hold rallies in their cities to mark and protest the anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s Feb. 24 invasion.
At each stop Zelensky’s core message has been the same, with the “more” that he wants often boiling down to toughening sanctions on Russia and either imposing a no-fly zone, or providing the means for Ukraine to do so itself. The context, however, has been carefully tailored.
In Japan, Zelensky appealed to a common history of nuclear disaster — for Japan at Fukushima in 2011, and for Ukraine, Chernobyl in 1986 — at a time when Russian troops have fired on nuclear facilities to capture them. In Paris, it was the desire Ukrainians share for “Liberté, égalité, fraternité,” the motto of the French Republic.
In Israel, Zelensky recalled Babyn Yar, a memorial at the ravine in Kyiv where Nazi-German troops killed almost 34,000 Jews, recently bombed by Russia. In the U.S., it was Pearl Harbor and the 9/11 terrorist attacks; in the U.K., the 1940 Battle of Britain, fought for control of the skies over England, and the Churchillian memory that year of being left to fight alone. Addressing Berlin, he appealed to Chancellor Olaf Scholz to “give Germany the leadership role that it deserves.”
But then come the zingers, designed to prick allies into action. Germany was told that its reluctance to cut economic and energy ties with Russia was building a new Berlin Wall, one that would sever Ukraine from the rest of Europe. In the U.K., Zelensky called on “Great” Britain to live up to its name and give Ukraine the means to fight its own Battle of Britain. “Do what the greatness of your state and your people obliges you to,” he said.
In the U.S., Zelensky switched to English to implore the leader of the free world to truly lead, by imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
“The point of the no-fly zone request is to make us feel guilty that we can’t do the no-fly zone so that we work even harder on everything that we can do,” said New Jersey Democratic Representative Tom Malinowski, a Foreign Affairs Committee member. “It’s brilliant.”
Several French companies including Renault SA were called out by name and told to exit Russia. Switzerland was called upon to freeze the bank accounts and real estate of Russian oligarchs. Zelensky also criticized the Swiss-based multinational food giant Nestle SA for continuing to do business in Russia.
On Wednesday, the company said it would suspend most of its sales and manufacturing in Russia, while focusing on essential foods including baby food and medical nutrition. Renault also said it was halting operations at its Moscow plant and reconsidering the future of its long-standing Russian joint venture.
Zelensky, who is Jewish, saved perhaps his toughest words for Israel, which has a delicate security relationship with Moscow in Syria and has refused either to sanction Russia, or to share its Iron Dome air defense system with Ukraine. Accusing Russia of seeking a “final solution” to Ukraine as Hitler did for Jews, he called on Israel not to be indifferent to evil.
“It is up to you, dear brothers and sisters, to choose the answer,” Zelensky told the Knesset. “And you will have to live with this answer, people of Israel.”