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Analysis | Zelenskiy visits London and Echoes Churchill


Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy literally came to Britain hat in hand on Wednesday. The leader of the war-torn country interrupted his speech at the historic 900-year-old Westminster Hall to present Speaker of the House, Lindsay Hoyle, with the helmet of one of Ukraine’s best fighter pilots, inscribed: “we have freedom. Now give us the wings to protect it.”

Speaking in English and dressed simply in those familiar khaki outfits, Zelenskiy appealed to modern fighter jets, but he gave MPs something beyond airplanes to think about.

Zelenksiy made Britain the first stop on its second trip abroad since Russia’s invasion nearly a year ago, in recognition of Britain’s crucial role in supporting Ukraine from the start of the war. He mentioned Boris Johnson by name and that felt good. Whatever his many shortcomings, Johnson understood that Ukraine’s struggle was also a struggle against authoritarianism in general, a struggle to maintain the post-war rules-based order, and one on which the credibility of the West depended.

Johnson accelerated the delivery of arms and other aid to Ukraine, making Britain the second largest supplier of military aid after the US and an important trainer of Ukrainian soldiers. He built a unique relationship with Zelenskiy, with four visits to Kiev in 2022. There were some concerns that current Prime Minister Rishi Sunak did not share Johnson’s fire for the cause. As finance minister, Sunak supported sanctions against Russia but stressed that they “are not free for our home”. Would Sunak, more focused on balancing the books and putting out house fires, play a key role in maintaining public support and the Western coalition as those costs mounted?

Most of those fears were allayed when Sunak became prime minister. He paid Kyiv its first foreign visit, spearheaded additional defense aid and made Britain the first Western country to send main battle tanks, though the number of Challenger 2 tanks is largely symbolic.

Wednesday’s visit dispelled any doubts that Sunak would “falter” – to borrow Margaret Thatcher’s famous warning to George Bush. Sunak did not promise any aircraft at this stage, but he did offer Ukrainian pilots training on NATO standard aircraft. A new set of sanctions against Russian entities and individuals was also announced.

Still, the Ukrainian leader had to cherish the broad political, public and media support that has supported his struggle. The genius of Zelenskiy’s speech was that it went straight to the national heart. He made British legislators feel that his mission was also part of their DNA. He connected Britain’s long history with its country’s existential struggle, Britain’s sense of national character with Ukraine’s existential cause. He had warm words of gratitude to King Charles III for his support when he was Prince of Wales. But there was also perspective: “In Britain, the king is an air force pilot, and in Ukraine, every air force pilot is a king.”

Zelenskiy recounted his visit to Churchill’s War Rooms well before the Russian invasion, when he was invited to take a seat in the armchair where the World War II hero made life-and-death decisions in Britain’s moment of historic peril. He said he could only now understand what the feeling it gave him meant. “And all Ukrainians know it very well. It’s a sense of how courage carries you through the most unimaginable hardships to reward you in the end with victory.”

What would they get at the end of this long, costly and bloody war? He had no doubt that the result would be a victory for Ukraine. But he also held out the prospect of something bigger; victory, he said, would change the world. “The UK is marching with us to the most, I think, most important victory of our lives. It will be a victory over the whole idea of ​​war.” It would send a message to any aggressor that an attack on international order would result in defeat.

That was not to call this the war to end all wars. Evil is part of the human condition, he acknowledged, and other wars would happen. But, he told lawmakers, “it is in the power of our words and actions to ensure that the light side of human nature prevails.”

In terms of purely national interest, a Ukrainian victory would put the UK in a position to benefit economically from increased trade and a role in reconstruction. And it would significantly improve the UK’s international position.

National myths can be dangerous things, as Putin has indeed shown while waging this war. In recent years, Britain has waged a fake war for “freedom” from the laws of the European Union. It has divided the country, distracted its leaders, made it poorer and often feels worse about itself. On the battlefields of Kharkiv and Bakhmut, and in Zelenskiy’s daily reality and plea for help, comes a reminder of what it’s like when true freedom is at stake. “The world needs your leadership, Britain, just as it needs Ukrainian courage,” Zelenskiy told lawmakers.

He will now take his message to Paris and Brussels, but by coming to Britain first, he asked for help as well as some kind of redemption.

More from Bloomberg’s opinion:

• What would George Kennan think of the Russian war?: Tobin Harshaw

• Biden escalates war in Ukraine to end it: Hal Brands

• The friendship between China and Russia is too great to fail: Clara F. Marques

This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the editors or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Therese Raphael is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion on healthcare and British politics. Previously, she was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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