This week, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky took his first trip abroad since Putin’s invasion in February. With little notice because of security concerns, he visited the US. It was the first time since Winston Churchill more than 80 years ago, that a war-time leader addressed Congress. His words formed a moving expression of resilience, gratitude, confidence and grace. Before he was a politician, Zelensky was a media professional and, as I wrote back in March after his urgent video presentation to Congress and again in May, he clearly knows how to use the media as a weapon in the war against Russia and to rally support for his country.
Zelensky met earlier in the day with President Joe Biden who promised additional military aid including promised delivery of patriot missile systems. This guarantee—long sought by the Ukrainian leader—could be pivotal in permanently turning the tide against the Russian invasion.
As David Sanger reports in the New York Times, “President Volodymyr Zelensky’s carefully choreographed blitz of Washington was crafted as one part celebration of Russia’s failure to crush Ukraine, one part appreciation for the American taxpayers funding the battle, and one part sales pitch for keeping a fragile coalition together in the long, bloody and freezing winter ahead.”
But the greatest takeaway from Zelensky’s visit lay not in the military or economic particulars of the deal that was struck between the two leaders, but the context in which the deal was struck. Only days before Christmas, Zelensky used the sentiments of the season to illustrate the courage of the Ukrainian people and the ongoing generosity in the hearts of Americans.
As a raging snowstorm was in the process of closing down much of the country, impacting millions of Americans, Zelensky reminded us of what it meant to live through a “white Christmas” without electricity, heat or running water. The day before, he was in Bakhmut, the Ukrainian city on the front lines that has endured relentless shelling by Russian forces, where survival is literally at stake. Without scolding, the Ukrainian President’s presence hinted at the contrast between “ordinary Ukrainians” caught in the conflagration with “ordinary Americans” concerned about beating the weather to be with loved ones for the holidays. Despite the different circumstances, Zelensky found commonality in the human experience.
Just before presenting Speaker Nancy Pelosi with a Ukranian flag signed by troops “fighting for democracy” on the front lines in Bakhmut, Zelensky’s words posited a Churchill-esque word of hope in these dark hours. “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.”
Though our circumstances differ greatly, the President of Ukraine once again, as he did in his video address to Congress in March, deepened the solidarity between our peoples by evoking shared memories and intimate images of families and friends gathered in candlelit settings to inspire one another that peace and freedom will prevail, even throughout the dark winter ahead.