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The mark of Zelenskyy: History awaits his address to Congress

Parallels to World War II, other tribulations of the 20th century

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will address Congress via Zoom on Wednesday.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will address Congress via Zoom on Wednesday. (Ukrinform/Future Publishing via Getty Images)

When the embattled Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to Congress by video Wednesday morning, the inevitable comparisons will be to Winston Churchill’s in-person address to a joint session just a few weeks after Pearl Harbor.

The British prime minister’s words, delivered in the Senate chamber on Dec. 26, 1941, were blunt: “We have therefore without doubt a time of tribulation before us … Some ground will be lost which it will be hard and costly to regain. Many disappointments and unpleasant surprises await us.”

Another speech by a foreign leader to America during the darkest days of World War II also seems apt. As the Nazis entered the outskirts of Paris in June 1940, French Premier Paul Reynaud begged Franklin Roosevelt in a radio speech “for clouds of warplanes from across the Atlantic … to crush the evil force that dominates Europe.”

Even if the clouds of warplanes had somehow been dispatched from neutral America, it would have already been too late. Just nine days after Reynaud’s desperate address, the French government surrendered to the evil force of the Nazi invaders.

As Zelenskyy speaks to Congress on Wednesday, it is likely that there will not be a dry eye in the House … or the Senate. Zelenskyy’s personal heroism, his unlikely path from TV actor to modern-day Churchill and the stunning resistance of the Ukrainian army all add to the emotion of the moment.

But Zelenskyy is not a formal ally in a world war, as Churchill was in late 1941. In a sense, the closer analogy is France in 1940, as Americans watched with tear-streaked horror as a revenge-mad dictator decimated a democratic nation.

In mid-June 1940, as Paris was falling, the Gallup Poll offered Americans four options about how much aid should be provided to England and France. Despite a loud isolationist bloc, an overwhelming 73 percent of those polled supported doing “everything possible to help England and France except go to war.”

Except go to war.

That is the limitation that America again faces in Ukraine. As Zelenskyy speaks and presumably again pleads for a no-fly zone and MiG fighters, he will reinvigorate the passion to do something — to do anything — to help Ukraine.

Already, there is an ongoing risk of a far wider war with Russia. Sunday’s deadly Russian cruise missile strike on a Ukrainian airbase close to the border with Poland — and the border with NATO — underscored the dangers.

While I make no claims to military expertise, I find the arguments persuasive that it would be impossible to enforce a no-fly zone without prompting aerial combat between NATO and Russian planes.

Maybe the proposed transfer of Poland’s 28 Soviet-era MiGs to Ukraine would make a battlefield difference. Maybe the fighter jets could be flown into Ukraine without triggering brutal Russian retaliation.

Or maybe not, as President Joe Biden and his administration appear to believe.

Seized by the understandable do-something ethos, it is very hard to rationally assess risk-reward ratios.

When you see an expectant mother dying after a maternity hospital in Mariupol was shelled by the Russians, it is impossible to keep emotions in check.

After a lifetime of seeing America as the world’s reigning superpower, it is frustrating for lawmakers and voters to confront the limits of our national response to the daily tragedies in Ukraine.

We crave the clarity of action, but Russian President Vladimir Putin’s nuclear arsenal and the battlefield realities in Ukraine offer only flawed choices.

After Zelenskyy finishes speaking Wednesday, many members of Congress will flock to the nearest TV cameras to offer their reactions and their strategic advice. While some lawmakers boast relevant military or strategic experience, many congressional comments on Wednesday will be shaped by gut reactions rather than considered geopolitical judgments.

Standing on the sidelines, all I ask in advance is a bit of humility.

This is not a time for partisanship. Putin’s merciless behavior is governed by Putin alone — and is not a reaction to the withdrawal from Afghanistan, Donald Trump or anything else.

Short of committing U.S. forces to the fight, it is hard to see how another president could have acted more successfully than Biden.

Every military gambit comes with a downside.

In an ideal world, lawmakers and pundits offering strategic advice to Biden would also explain the risks of their preferred courses of action. The problem is that such yes-but-on-the-other-hand agonizing creates boring television interviews. Too often, people facing the cameras opt for shoot-from-the-hip certainty over anything resembling wisdom.

Staying the course and limiting NATO aid to Ukraine is also fraught with possible dangers. What if an errant Russian cruise missile lands in Poland? What if Putin comes close to utilizing battlefield nuclear weapons? What if the three Baltic states — all NATO members — are next?

It is uplifting how much emotional support Americans are offering to Ukraine. This reaction, of course, is a tribute to our better angels. And it strongly suggests that the era of Putin apologists and NATO skeptics is over.

As Zelenskyy addresses Congress, it is hard to avoid the sense that once again we are replaying the most tragic moments of the 20th century.

First, the worst pandemic in a century. And now Russia is replicating the joint 1939 Nazi and Soviet dismemberment of Poland that launched World War II.

But Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people are proving that 2022 is not really 1939 or 1940. The longer Ukraine can bravely hold on, the greater the hope that something good can emerge from the horrors of wartime.

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