Week-in-Review: Zelensky’s political mastery will secure warplanes and more

There was something distinctly messianic about Volodymyr Zelensky’s address on Wednesday, standing atop the famous steps of Westminster Hall, stark in the winter sun. The assembled crowd, a mix of the great and the good of Westminster society, stood in silent awe at the President of Ukraine. They were his disciples, bowing before the warrior king of Ukraine, dressed in his trademark khaki tracksuit and combat boots. SNP defense spokesman Dave Duggan was loud among the assembled faithful; “The glory of Ukraine!”, he cried, as Zelensky leaned towards the pulpit, addressed solemnly.

The sermon itself was emotional but focused. “I come here and stand before you on behalf of the brave, on behalf of our warriors”, Zelensky’s opening words were transformed by his raw, mesmerizing rasp. The audience, gathered under the ancient beams of Westminster Hall, was immediately hooked.

A series of working anecdotes followed. Casting MPs’ minds back to autumn 2020, before Russian tanks rolled over the Ukrainian border, Zelensky described his first visit to the UK and the “delicious English tea” he shared with Speaker Lindsey Hoyle. For pin-drop silence, he also spoke of the time he sat in Winston Churchill’s armchair as part of a tour of Whitehall’s famous War Rooms. “I suddenly felt something”, Zelensky recalled. “But now I understand what the feeling was. And all Ukrainians know it perfectly well. It is a feeling that bravery takes you through the most unimaginable hardships and finally rewards you with victory”. Enthusiastic applause.

Then came the Churchillian metaphors, such as those Zelensky chose in MPs’ collective memories of European wars past. “In Britain, the king is an air force pilot”, Zelensky said; A beat passed before he continued: “And in Ukraine today, every air force pilot is a king for us, for our family, because They are very few” It was a deliberate echo of War on Britain – reminding MPs that Ukraine also stands alone in the face of a ruthless dictator.

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The high-powered speech, of course, carries a very carefully concealed political message. Zelensky wants the UK to provide warplanes to Ukraine, as the country looks ahead to an expected spring offensive by Putin’s forces. Flattery and Churchillian rhetoric were employed as means to this particular end.

“We have freedom, give us wings to defend it”, continued Zelensky in another artful, rhetorically weighty. Next, the Ukrainian Air Force pilot’s helmet was unboxed and gleefully received by the speaker in a deeply moving act of political theater. Each cheer and each extended applause was moving the Ukrainian president closer to his goal.

Zelensky has a proven track record of persuading Britain to give what he wants. By 2022, then-Prime Minister Boris Johnson had never found a commitment to Ukraine he didn’t like. Envisioning himself as Ukraine’s fiercest intercontinental champion, the strength of Johnson’s support places both him and the UK at the forefront of the pro-Ukraine international coalition. And significantly, Rishi Sunak’s recent commitment of fourteen Challenger 2 tanks suggests that Britain’s commitment to Ukraine is not weakening but deepening.

Appropriately, President Zelensky thanked Britain and Johnson for their leadership. “Great Britain, you extended your helping hand when the world still didn’t know how to respond”. Turning to Johnson, who had no problem staying in the large, clean hall, the Ukrainian president continued: “Boris, you brought others together when it seemed absolutely impossible”.

“Thank you”, said Zelensky, locking eyes with the former prime minister who nodded in satisfaction.

Zelensky will be aware of Johnson’s continued presence in UK politics. Johnson’s post-prime ministerial nature would have been a topic of conversation during his recent visit to Kiev. Given this, Zelensky’s decision to acknowledge Johnson in his speech is significant and deeply politically powerful.

It looks an awful lot like an attempt to use Johnson’s activism as a way to force Sunak to act. The subtext reads: Boris will never let Ukraine down, will you sage?

Zelensky closed his speech by increasing the pressure on the Prime Minister. Ukraine’s president quipped that while he left parliament two years ago grateful for “delicious English tea”, he is now leaving parliament thanking MPs in advance for “powerful English planes”. The audience laughed and cheered in equal measure. He has never won a Westminster Hall bar.

The speech was also a set-up for Zelensky’s second public appearance of the day, this time with Sunak at a press conference in Dorset. The Prime Minister was asked half a dozen times whether the UK would provide fighter jets; Sunak was coy, but added that “nothing is off the table” and denied any suggestion of UK imprudence.

After the curtain was drawn on Wednesday’s events, few were in doubt: Zelensky would get his plane, making it virtually impossible for Sunak not to give him what he wanted.

Wings of freedom…

The Westminster Hall address shows just how unstoppable Zelensky has become in British politics. It’s a fact that reflects both Johnson’s legacy of activism and the president’s wider international reputation.

Indeed, the Ukrainian president’s address to UK lawmakers was followed by a visit to Brussels on Thursday. He brought good news: “I think that our visit to London has achieved results”, Zelensky told European lawmakers anxiously. He also expected better from the EU.

Of course, there was a political pitch here too. “This is our Europe, this is our rules, this is our way of life. And for Ukraine, this is a way home, its way home”, Zelensky suggested, demanding EU membership. It was an approach – just as it was delivered in Westminster Hall – that would likely yield results in due course.

Ultimately, Zelensky’s ability to play off political rivals against each other, exploiting his image and avoiding practical and moral incentives, reveals a serious level of political skill. He knows that Ukraine’s hopes in the conflict depend on its ability to build stable international coalitions. And Zelensky is determined not to let his country down.

Ultimately, his political dominance will in all likelihood secure warplanes from the UK, and more from a selection of international allies as the Ukraine conflict unfolds. One wonders what Zelensky will want — and no doubt safe — next.