War Stories

The Clever Way Zelensky Changed His Message to America

After trying and failing to shame the U.S. into stronger action against Russia, Ukraine’s president tried a different tack in an inspirational speech on Wednesday.

Volodymyr Zelensky seen on a large screen in front of a bunch of people seated in an auditorium.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky virtually addresses the U.S. Congress on Wednesday at the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center Congressional Auditorium. J. Scott Applewhite/Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky gave an unsurprisingly impassioned virtual speech before the U.S. Congress on Wednesday morning. But it was also a shrewd speech. It seemed designed not to make Americans feel ashamed that they aren’t doing more to help his country stave off Russia’s invasion, but rather to alter the dynamics of the war.

In recent days, Zelensky has beseeched previous Western audiences to impose a no-fly zone above his country. This would involve U.S. or NATO jets shooting down any Russian plane that flies over Ukrainian territory. President Joe Biden and European leaders have declined to take this step, saying—quite rightly—that it would be, by definition, the first move in a direct U.S.-Russia battle that could trigger World War III.

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However, in his speech to Congress, Zelensky tried a new tack. If a no-fly zone “is too much to ask,” he said, “we offer an alternative”—send Ukraine advanced anti-aircraft systems. “You know what kind of defense systems we need, S-300 and other similar systems,” he added.

These systems would improve the Ukrainians’ ability to shoot down Russian airplanes, which have been bombing civilian and military targets. His request is plausible: As long as Ukrainians are manning the systems, it wouldn’t cross any of Vladimir Putin’s red lines. Finally, the U.S. and other NATO nations are already about to do what he’s asking.

In the past week or so, the U.S. and other countries have sent hundreds of shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft missiles to Ukraine. But Stingers are good mainly for shooting down helicopters; by contrast, S-300s are radar-guided, have a more powerful explosive device, and can reach the altitudes of the highest-flying Russian combat jets. The missiles were made by the Soviet Union beginning in the 1980s and have been sold over the years to about 20 countries, including three NATO members—Bulgaria, Slovakia, and Greece—which could presumably turn some over to Ukraine.

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Ukraine also bought S-300s, meaning that at least some of its air-defense crews know how to use them.

A few hours after Zelensky’s speech, Biden made one of his own, announcing that he was using his executive powers to provide Ukraine with another $800 million in military assistance—bringing the total amount to $1 billion just this week and nearly $2 billion in the past several months.

Biden said that the new arms deliveries would include 800 anti-aircraft weapons. A White House fact sheet, released shortly after the speech, indicated that all 800 would be Stinger missiles. However, the sheet also stated that, in addition to the Stingers, which “the Ukrainians have been using to great effect,” the U.S. “is helping the Ukrainians acquire additional, longer-range systems on which Ukraine’s forces are already trained.”

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Though specific models have yet to be announced, these longer-range systems could include S-300s. CNN reported that NATO members are about to send Ukraine several other types of Soviet-made mobile surface-to-air missiles—not quite as advanced as S-300s, but, unlike Stingers, fully able to shoot down high-flying aircraft.

The $800 million worth of new U.S. weapons will also include 9,000 anti-tank weapons, 100 drones, nearly 7,000 small arms (grenade launchers, rifles, machine guns, and pistols), and more than 20 million rounds of ammunition for those arms, in addition to 25,000 helmets and sets of body armor.

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This is in addition to the following weapons that the U.S. has already sent (a list that the White House fact sheet makes public for the first time): more than 600 Stingers, 2,000 anti-tank weapons, five Mi-17 helicopters, three patrol boats, four counter-artillery and counter-drone radars, 600 small arms, more than 1 million rounds of ammo, 70 wheeled vehicles, military medical equipment, secure communications and electronic warfare systems, and access to satellite imagery and analysis.

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Though Zelensky did not say so in his speech to the Congress, he has also been urging Western countries to send Ukraine Soviet-made MiG-29 fighter jets, which could shoot down Russian planes from the air and also drop precision-guided bombs on ground targets, such as convoys of Russian tanks and other vehicles.

Last week Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Poland would send Ukraine 29 of its MiG-29s, but the Polish government backed away, offering to fly them to a NATO base in Germany, from which NATO officials could then transfer the planes to Ukraine. The Pentagon rejected that idea, concerned that Putin would see it as interference in the war and possibly strike back at targets inside NATO nations, thus escalating the conflict.

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Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin arrived in Brussels on Tuesday for a meeting of NATO defense ministers. Biden will fly there next week for a meeting of the NATO nations’ heads of state. The main topic of both sessions will likely be how to boost the alliance’s military assistance to Ukraine—and whether certain forms of assistance, once thought to be off limits, might now be put on the table.

Certainly it is unclear why the U.S. and several European nations can send Stingers, Javelin anti-tank missiles, grenades, rifles, bullets, and other weapons, which have been used to kill Russian soldiers and damage their equipment, without spurring Putin to expand the war to NATO territory—but some officials think sending combat jets and more advanced anti-aircraft missiles would somehow tip him over the edge.

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Pressure has been mounting on Capitol Hill for Biden to do more, and Zelensky’s speech, which Biden called “convincing and significant,” will probably play into that pressure. It was finely calibrated to his audience. In a Facebook speech earlier this month, the Ukrainian president harshly criticized the NATO nations for not imposing a no-fly zone over his country, slamming them as “weak” and urging them to think about “all those people who will die because of you.” Perhaps because someone briefed him that shame and scolding wouldn’t appeal to an American audience, Zelensky was more restrained on Wednesday, saying his country is “grateful to the United States for its overwhelming support,” for its “weapons and ammunition, for training, for finances, for leadership in the free world.” He appealed to Americans on their own terms, asking them to remember the horrors of Pearl Harbor and 9/11 and to reflect that Ukraine has experienced those sorts of catastrophes every day and night for the past three weeks. In that spirit, he pleaded, “in the darkest time for our country, for the whole Europe, I call on you to do more.”

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Meanwhile, the war continues, with Russian planes and artillery stepping up Russia’s bombing and shelling of Ukrainian cities—while its ground forces have still made little if any progress toward conquering those cities or achieving any of its other war aims.

So-called peace talks continue as well. In recent days, Zelensky has offered to drop his hopes for joining NATO, an aspiration that Putin had once cited as a reason for his invasion. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said on Wednesday that there was “hope for reaching a compromise.” However, around the same time, in another long, rambling televised speech, Putin seemed less than ready for peace, doubling down on his false claims that “the pro-Nazi regime in Kyiv” is committing “genocide” in the Donbas, preparing an attack on Russia, and plotting with the West to build biological and nuclear weapons, among other deeds.

As Biden said in his speech, “This could be a long and difficult battle,” adding, “The American people will be steadfast in our support of the Ukrainian people. … We’re going to give Ukraine the arms to fight and defend themselves through all the difficult days ahead.” The implicit message here—which he has sometimes said out loud, though he didn’t do so this time—is that the U.S. and NATO are not going to send troops or pilots into battle against Russia. But they will supply the firepower to carry on this fight.

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