Editor’s Note: Frida Ghitis, (@fridaghitis) a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
We knew the historic address by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to Congress would be emotionally searing and extraordinarily powerful. But Wednesday’s speech was more than that.
Zelensky’s words are not only destined for the history books. They will likely energize support for Ukraine’s defense against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war machine and reverberate across the US.
When America’s top Democrats and Republicans rose side by side to give Zelensky a standing ovation, we knew the Ukrainian President had made his mark. Zelensky, reminding Americans what freedom really means after the country has spent years devaluing it in petty political battles, proves there is a new seriousness in the nation.
By now a familiar face around the world in his military-colored T-shirt and slowly-evolving beard, Zelensky addressed all Americans:
“Members of Congress, ladies and gentlemen, Americans, friends,” he said, because he had a specific mission for each – a role they could play in helping save not only Ukraine but potentially the future of democracy and peace. “Right now, the destiny of our country is being decided …,” he declared, “whether Ukrainians will be free.” But this is not just their battle, he insisted. “The Ukrainian people are defending not only Ukraine; we are fighting for the values of Europe and the world.”
After showing a wrenching video of Ukrainians enduring Russia’s offensive, he switched from Ukrainian to English, speaking directly to the US President. “I am grateful to President Biden for his personal involvement, for his sincere commitment to Ukraine and democracy all over the world,” noting Biden’s leadership in providing military support sanctions, and a unified international front against Russia.
“Thank you,” he said to Biden and to the American people, but we need more.
Rhetorically seizing Biden by the lapels, he said, “You are the leader of the nation, of your great nation. I wish you to be the leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.”
As he has with other audiences, Zelensky tailored his message. Imagine being struck from the sky, as on 9/11, but every day, he told Americans. He spoke about Pearl Harbor, and he cited Martin Luther King. “I have a dream …,” he intoned, “I can say, I have a need. I need to protect our sky.” Zelensky’s principal request is that the US impose a no-fly zone over Ukraine, to protect his people from Russian bombardments. Biden has thus far refused, arguing that it could lead to World War III by putting America in a direct military confrontation with Russia.
But Zelensky’s speech was not just an appeal to conscience. It was not just a reminder that the values America cherishes most deeply – freedom, democracy, self-determination – are in play.
For all his soaring rhetoric, Zelensky is pragmatic and realistic. He even offered an alternative if the no-fly zone is a no-go. Instead, he asked for planes and air defense systems. He presented a list of ideas, of requests, of ways the United States and the world could help.
“In the darkest time for our country, for the whole of Europe, I call on you to do more,” he told Congress; he told Americans.
He asked for new packages of sanctions, “constantly, every week until the Russian military machine stops.” He asked for penalties against all Russian politicians “who remain in their offices and do not cut ties with those who are responsible for the aggression against Ukraine,” essentially Putin’s accomplices. He called on American companies to shut down operations in Russia, “leave their market immediately because it is flooded with our blood.” He asked that US ports be closed to Russian products.
Zelensky told members of Congress to pressure companies in their districts to stop doing business with the country that is pummeling his.
“I am asking to make sure,” he said, “that the Russians do not receive a single penny that they use to destroy people in Ukraine.”
Hours later, Biden approved an additional $800 million in military assistance to Ukraine, bringing the total to $1 billion in aid just this week. Biden recognized Zelensky’s moving appeal, spelled out the massive amount of military and humanitarian supplies from “the American people” and vowed more will be coming in a conflict that he said could be drawn out.
Biden further declared that the world is with Ukraine. This could be a long battle, he said, that “pits the appetites of an autocrat against humankind’s desire to be free.”
Zelensky has clearly pondered about that battle. In his speech, he outlined an idea for a global alliance. “We propose to create an association … a union of responsible countries that have the strength and consciousness to stop conflicts immediately … in 24 hours, if necessary.” The U24, as he called it, would provide humanitarian support, political support, sanctions, even weapons, “to keep the peace and quickly save the world.”
It was an idea from a man who has mastered the art of blending diplomacy, idealism and results; a leader who is in a desperate battle to save his country and who is trying to persuade the United States – and the world – that they not only have the ability to help Ukraine win this war, but even more, that Ukraine is fighting this war for a cause much greater than its own survival.