Kyiv, Ukraine – Before Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky was often dismissed as a former comedian who stumbled into the job of leading a nation on the seemingly naïve promise of cleaning up corruption endemic to Ukraine.
After a quick trip Tuesday to the bloodiest theater of the war, he arrived in Washington Wednesday a national hero and a global superstar, having forged a leadership style that combined personal boldness with deft messaging to rally his people at home and their allies abroad.
That aura has served him and his country well so far. But Mr. Zelensky arrives in Washington at a crucial time for Ukraine, when its troops’ lightning counteroffensives this fall are slowing down. He will plead for the more powerful weapons he believes Ukraine needs, but he will have to walk a fine line.
With a bold trip abroad in wartime, he seeks to project strength and show confidence that Ukraine will eventually prevail. But to make the case for continued financial and military support, he must draw attention to the dire threat Ukraine still faces without appearing weak.
“President Zelensky wants to present this trip as a serious advance in the war,” Volodymyr Ariev, a member of Parliament from the opposition European Solidarity Party, said in an interview. “It’s a pretty clear message that the U.S.-Ukraine alliance remains and is quite strong.”
In Ukraine, the visit was also seen as tied to the American political calendar as control of the House passes to the Republican Party, some of whose members have expressed skepticism about continuing to funnel aid to Ukraine.
Another one from Mr. Zelensky’s main goals, analysts say, is to maintain unified American support for the war, doing everything he can to prevent it from becoming a partisan issue.
“Zelensky should not maneuver between the Democrats and the Republicans,” Yevhen Mahda, a political commentator in Kyiv, said in an interview. “It should suggest a new paradigm: the paradigm that today Ukraine is the epicenter of the battle between good and evil.
“And by supporting Ukraine, the United States supports good,” he said. Mahda added. “This is the necessary message.”
Mr. Zelensky, a former comedian, has always had a keen sense of image and narrative in politics, which is evident in the follow-up to a front-line visit to the eastern city of Bakhmut, with artillery booming as backdrop, with his speech to Congress.
“It is an honor for me to be here today,” said Mr. Zelensky had told soldiers in Bakhmut, where Russia has been pressing a fierce offensive for months. To people with children, he said: “I wish that your sun, that is, your children, shine for you, so that they motivate you to survive, for sure, and defend your families, our families, everything our state and the future of our children”.
At a news conference Wednesday with President Biden in Washington, where he made a personal plea for more economic and military support, he had a similar message when asked what he wanted the world to know: “I wish you peace.” he said. , switching from Ukrainian to English. “And you only understand that when the war is in your country.” He added, “I wish you would see your children when they go to college, and that you would see their children.”
Analysts say that Mr. Zelensky is also keenly aware that he needs to bolster the morale of his people, millions of whom live without electricity, water or heating when winter arrives.
For the most part, however, Mr. Zelensky faced no political pressure at home and was free to tailor the trip to the imperative to replenish his military’s arsenal for war.
The United States is by far the largest foreign supplier of weapons to the Ukrainian military. But the Biden administration has carefully calibrated its assistance to Ukraine, holding back the longest-range and most powerful weapons for fear of Ukrainian attacks on Russian territory that could drag NATO into war.
Two successful Ukrainian counteroffensives in the northeast and south have run their course, and Russian and Ukrainian armies are digging in along a new 600-mile front line. To maintain that progress, Ukrainian officials and analysts say, its military needs more advanced weapons systems.
Mr. Zelensky will have a chance to address US lawmakers’ concerns about oversight of military and financial aid to Ukraine, and could be pushed on domestic issues such as press freedom, fighting corruption and ensuring checks and balances between the courts and the executive branch.
But Mr. Zelensky’s main goal is to portray the war in clear terms of good versus evil, which he hopes will transcend American politics and give “a sense of the reason for its cause and the sense of what its people and their soldiers,” said Yuri Makarov. the editor-in-chief of the National Broadcasting Company of Ukraine.
Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv.