WATCH: Ukraine's major cities pounded as more Russian forces close in
The former comedian and actor turned wartime leader will virtually address the Canadian Parliament on Tuesday, followed by a virtual appearance at a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Wednesday.
Experts say these addresses — which follow similar appeals to the British House of Commons and the European Parliament — are part of a broader effort that, combined with regular video updates Zelenskyy posts to social media, are meant to show Ukraine’s strength in the face of war while putting pressure on the West for more help.
“Zelenskyy had a couple of choices: he could have fled and ran … or he could take this approach we’re seeing now of fighting the battle on all fronts, and get himself out there and be the humane voice of the Ukrainian nation,” said Jared McBride, an expert on Russian and Ukrainian history who lectures at the University of California Los Angeles.
“I think what he’s doing has been probably the best choice for him and probably for the Ukrainian people.”
Zelenskyy has remained in the capital of Kyiv throughout the invasion, despite increasing bombardments and the growing threat of Russian forces breaching the capital.
Ukrainian officials have confirmed at least one assassination attempt on the president has been thwarted so far, and there have been numerous reports of other failed attacks on Zelenskyy’s life.
Amidst the danger, Zelenskyy has given multiple daily briefings from either his offices in Kyiv, one of several underground bunkers where he has hidden, and even in the streets of the capital. Some of his addresses have been delivered partly in Russian, which experts say is significant.
“The goal is to show that he’s a normal-looking, Russian-speaking working-class guy, rather than the ‘drug-addled Nazi’ that (Russian President Vladimir) Putin’s propaganda describes,” said Richard Price, who heads the political science department at the University of British Columbia, in an email to Global News.
At the same time, Zelenskyy has accepted invitations to speak to Western governments, imploring them to go further than harsh economic sanctions and to provide military assistance and equipment.
He has also repeatedly called for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which NATO has refused to entertain in order to avoid a direct military confrontation with Russia.
Yet there are signs that the pleas have worked to change lawmakers’ hearts and minds. According to the New York Times and Politico, Zelenskyy’s emotional appeal to European Union leaders on Feb. 24 “shifted” the moods of those on the call who had been resisting harsh new sanctions on Russia.
Days later, the EU announced it was going ahead with the tougher measures, including targeting Putin himself.
And after Zelenskyy met privately on a virtual call with more than 280 members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives on March 5, a U.S. aid package for Ukraine ballooned to $13.6 billion from the $10 billion U.S. President Joe Biden initially requested. The bill was approved late last week.
A second virtual address to the EU Parliament on March 1 ended in a standing ovation. So did Zelenskyy’s speech to the British House of Commons on March 8 — the first time a foreign leader was allowed to address the body, which normally forbids applause — where the Ukrainian president vowed to “fight till the end.”
Similar receptions are anticipated at his addresses to Canadian and U.S. lawmakers this week, where he is expected to press for more aid and the further crippling of Russia’s economy.
“It’s a good strategy,” McBride said. “(Zelenskyy) has nothing to lose by going to Congress or a British Parliament or anyone else and making the case for a country that is under attack — particularly speaking to those who are sympathetic allies.”
In the case of the U.S., Zelenskyy may also be looking to counter Russian disinformation about the war that has spread within some American far-right elements.
At least one sitting U.S. congressman, Republican Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, has criticized Zelenskyy directly, calling him a “thug.” Cawthorn is a staunch supporter of the “America First” movement spearheaded by former president Donald Trump, who has praised Putin both before and after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Yet McBride says anyone who may be voicing support for Putin’s messaging are unlikely to be swayed by Zelenskyy’s appeals.
“I would say the roots of those positions have nothing to do with the information they’re getting, but rather from their own pre-existing worldviews and whatever they perhaps feel they can get out of this conflict,” he said. “Their hearts and minds won’t be changed by whatever is said Wednesday.”
Canada has joined the rest of NATO and other countries in imposing crippling sanctions on Russia’s economy and government, including Putin. Ottawa has also sent military equipment and humanitarian aid.
It is not yet clear if further actions could come from Zelenskyy’s speech, though Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said last week that Canada and its allies will maintain pressure on Russia “for as long as it takes” to end the war.
Trudeau has had numerous calls with Zelenskyy, who has shared details of multiple private conversations with world leaders he has daily, including Biden, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
Price of UBC says Zelenskyy has “shown both amazing courage and impressive communication skills” as he remains in Kyiv and stays in the public eye, which McBride says is likely to continue throughout the war.
“He’s using the skills he has as an actor, and also his command of social media as a part of the younger generation, and it’s having an impact,” McBride said.
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