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Zelensky’s speech is a new precedent for a modern address to Congress from a leader in war time

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was not the first foreign leader to address a full session of the United States Congress, nor was he the first one to do so while their nation was at war.

But Zelensky’s speech, conducted over a livestream, was the most modern ever and likely a model for speeches in the future. Now enabled by technology, these types of speeches could become even more frequent to the point where they might even be routine as the next crisis arrives.

His address, delivered from an undisclosed area in Ukraine, was short and to the point, clocking in around 15 minutes. His in-person audience in Washington, D.C., ate it up with standing ovations and a sentiment that the world’s most powerful capital was fully behind Ukraine.


Here are some quick notes from the speech that will likely drive much of American politics on Wednesday.

A celebrity

Zelensky’s leadership during the last three weeks that Russia has been pounding his country has turned him into an international celebrity. He has already been compared to Winston Churchill.

Instead of Churchill’s top hat and cigar, Zelensky has his green t-shirt and his social media accounts.

There are many crises and wars happening around the world, including the humanitarian crises in Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, and Ethiopia. But leaders, even on the so-called “right side” of those conflicts, aren’t being given the platform that the US Congress just gave Zelensky.

A video

A lot of that message was presented in a way no other world leader has been able to: by showing a well-produced – and horrifying – video documenting the damage inflicted on Ukraine’s infrastructure and its people, including children. No leader has ever been able to bring that type of emotional connection with videos directly to a full session of Congress like that.


A connection

Like Zelensky did in his address to the UK Parliament, he personalized his remarks by saying how his nation’s current dark days are very similar to the specific ones that the nation he is addressing has experienced.

In the case of the United States, he said what Ukraine is basically experiencing now is the same as the attacks on Pearl Harbor and on Sept. 11, except that it isn’t just one day, but has been widespread in the country for nearly a month.

A cause

Zelensky made the case that America needs to be more involved in the defense of Ukraine not for geopolitical or strategic reasons, but for defense of peace and democracy generally.

“I see no sense in life if it cannot stop the deaths,” he told the audience.

In doing so, he is playing right to President Biden’s words, who long before Ukraine was attacked framed the global fight as being between democracy and authoritarianism.

A request

Zelensky asked for the United States to help create a no-fly zone over his nation, but also basically conceded that wasn’t going to be granted. (Biden has concerns that if the US shot down a Russian plane, it would spark World War III.)

But he did ask for more missile defenses and for more military help.

One question

The question embedded in his appeal is whether his emotional speech will get America involved even more in the conflict. That was, after all, the point of Zelensky giving the speech.


Given the responses from various members of Congress after the speech, the answer appears to be no. There is really no change at the moment even as they praised the speech and Zelensky.

One notable omission

It was interesting that Zelensky never mentioned NATO in his remarks, given the role that the organization has played in the conflict. Russia’s Vladimir Putin has demanded that Ukraine never be added to the alliance. NATO hasn’t admitted Ukraine and would be obligated to go to war to defend it fully if it did.

The NATO question, in fact, is either conceded by Zelensky as not happening or just is totally irrelevant to stopping the war today. But it was interesting that he did call for a new, NATO-like organization to be formed, of which Ukraine would be a member.

James Pindell can be reached at Follow him @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.