Zelenskyy invokes history and makes some of his own

WASHINGTON — When Winston Churchill addressed Congress in the Senate chamber the day after Christmas in 1941, he wore a bow tie. He came to Congress not to plead, but to praise.

“The United States, united as never before, has drawn the sword for freedom and cast away the scabbard,” the British prime minister said.

By livestream Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy spoke to U.S. lawmakers from the middle of a war zone in Kyiv. He wore a fatigues-green T-shirt, and his backdrop consisted of a Ukrainian flag and a white wall.

Instead of appearing in the House chamber, where most addresses by foreign leaders are given, Zelenskyy was broadcast on a screen in an underground auditorium in the Capitol Visitor Center. Showing video footage of dead Ukrainians and bomb-devastated cities, Zelenskyy aimed to prod America.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy virtually addresses Congress on Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center Congressional Auditorium.Drew Angerer / AFP – Getty Images

“I call on you to do more,” he said in remarks addressed to Congress, President Joe Biden and the American public.

“It had to be the most unusual address by a foreign leader to Congress,” Rep. Joaquin Castro, D-Texas, said.

Despite the contrasts, parallels between Churchill and Zelenskyy proved inescapable for lawmakers grasping to put Wednesday’s extraordinary videoconference in historical context — and not just because the Ukrainian president invoked the attack on Pearl Harbor that pushed the U.S. into World War II.

Russian President Vladimir Putin’s quest for westward expansion helped cast Zelenskyy in the role of a modern-day version of the British prime minister who led the European resistance to Hitler, several of them said.

“The Ukrainians have a leader right now who is almost Churchillian,” said Rep. Tom Cole, R-Okla., who holds a doctorate in British history, lauding Zelenskyy for showing courage and grit. “Americans respond to that.”

Zelenskyy, who called on lawmakers to lobby businesses based in their districts to pull out of Russia, wants America to establish a no-fly zone over his country or, short of that, to facilitate the transfer of jets and surface-to-air missiles from Western nations to Ukraine.

While the former request remains off the table for most lawmakers — like Biden, they see a risk of no-fly-zone enforcement escalating to direct conflict with Russia — the latter has significant support in both parties.

“We should give him the goddamned planes,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif. “The guy is addressing Congress in fatigues. A bomb could drop on him any second. He’s on the front lines for freedom and is asking for more tools to stay in the fight.”

Zelenskyy isn’t the only foreign leader from a country in peril to address Congress. He’s not even the only Ukrainian president to do so in the last decade. In 2014, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko stood on the House floor and beseeched lawmakers to stand up to Putin, who had just annexed Crimea, a Ukrainian peninsula that juts into the Black Sea.

“I guess you could say Zelenskyy is Winston Churchill and Biden is FDR for historical analogy.”

Sen. John Cornyn

Poroshenko told Congress that Ukraine “cannot win the war with blankets.”

Zelenskyy’s speech Wednesday was the 124th time a foreign leader has addressed the House and Senate, according to a list kept by the Office of the House Historian. Few of them have spoken to lawmakers while their nations were at war — and none from a city under attack.

The combination of an ongoing war in Europe and U.S. leaders’ admiration for Zelenskyy have helped cast him the role of a Churchill for the livestream era — even if the threat of full engagement between Russia and Western powers has not yet been realized.

“This is a historic moment,” Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said Wednesday. “I guess you could say Zelenskyy is Winston Churchill and Biden is FDR for historical analogy.”

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