Joe Biden’s hand on Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s shoulder. A Ukrainian flag with the signatures of Ukrainian fighters in the US Congress. It was a historic visit, it produced pictures for the history album. And a number of realizations – also uncomfortable ones.
Volodymyr Zelenskyy did not flee from the attacking Russians. Zelenskyy gave his country the leader it needed to resist. Zelenskyy convinced the US to ensure Ukraine’s survival. Zelenskyy has convinced the anxious Europeans to help him. And now Zelenskyj has also united the divided Congress behind him.
In short, from the point of view of Vladimir Putin, who was hoping for cheering Ukrainians as his troops arrived, Zelenskyy is the worst thing that could have happened to the Russian leader. After 300 days of war, one thing is certain: Selenskyj is Putin’s biggest nightmare.
Here are the key lessons from Zelensky’s historic visit to Washington:
First: Zelenskyy’s appearance in Washington was historic because he managed to convince the majority of Republicans. He did it with two arguments. The fight against Putin is not a regional matter, but a fundamental one: a war between freedom and dictatorship. And: American aid is not a gift, but an investment – Ukraine is grateful to the US, but the US can also be grateful to Ukraine. Both houses gave Selenskyj a standing ovation several times – like the British wartime prime minister Winston Churchill 81 years ago. CNN commentator Frida Ghitis then called Selenskyj’s performance “a triumph”.
Secondly: Zelenskyj has managed to bring together the totally divided, and even more: ideologically hostile, American parties behind him and his goal. Whether it was a one-time success or one that lasts is, for Zelenskyj, decisive for the war in the truest sense of the word. As of January 3rd, Republicans will have a majority in the House of Representatives. This is where the decision about aid to Ukraine is made; Biden cannot decide on his own. So we’ll see in the new year – but Selenskyj has at least tried everything, more is not possible. Time magazine made Zelenskyj a “person of the year”.
Third: It was also about peace – and peace negotiations. And for the first time it became clear that Zelenskyy is not free to decide whether and when and which kind of peace will be negotiated. In the press conference with Joe Biden, Zelenskyy was asked about it. His answer is remarkable – he used it to launch a public reflection on a “just peace” – a major philosophical issue. He spoke about the dead, also about “revenge feelings” of the surviving citizens in Ukraine, and then said this crucial sentence:
When Volodymyr Zelenskyy – by then a popular actor and comedian – surprisingly won Ukraine’s presidential election in 2019, the world assumed he would be a weak leader and easily swayed by the Kremlin with the help of the oligarchs. But the opposite was the case: Selenskyj proved to be a man with backbone, courageous and inflexible. In the face of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, he became a true statesman, commanding respect even from his enemies.
“How do you explain what a just peace is to people who have lost their spouse or children?”
Zelenskyj’s message: Because of the sacrifices that Ukraine has made, this fight must go on. If he wanted peace negotiations now, he would lose the support of his own people. That limits his scope. This is real news.
Fourth: According to his own statements, Zelenskyj has a peace plan. He discussed it with Biden. The plan consists of ten points. No one found out what they were. But that Zelenskyj has a ten-point plan for peace is new.
Fifth: The West is united, but on a low level. Responsible for this is Europe, Germany at the top. Because Germany is afraid of a nuclear war, of a Third World War, the aid for Ukraine only goes as far as Olaf Scholz’s formula: Russia must not win the war, Ukraine must not lose it. The Americans go much further, Joe Biden explained this – and admitted that he had already said too much. What was this excess?
Why did the Americans only deliver weapons piecemeal and not all at once, a Ukrainian reporter asked Joe Biden. His answer:
“There would have been a risk that the European Union and NATO would have broken up.” Good grief – and why? Biden further:
He spent “hundreds of hours” with the leaders of the European states – “face to face”. To convince them why it is in their own interest to support Ukraine. “They understood that.” In other words, the Europeans had to be convinced of this.
And further, according to Biden: They, the Europeans, did not want to slide into a war with Russia – into a Third World War. Then the sentence that marks the crucial difference between Joe Biden and Olaf Scholz: “I believe this can be prevented – by ensuring that Ukraine wins on the battlefield.”
That means: The Americans not only want, like Scholz, that Ukraine “does not lose”. Biden wants Ukraine to “win”.
The Americans are not afraid, like Scholz, that arms deliveries could trigger a Third World War. They are afraid that NO arms shipments could start a third world war.
This explains Zelenskyj’s sentence: “We are not afraid. You don’t have to be afraid either.” In the eyes of Biden and Zelenskyj, who repeatedly emphasized how united they are on everything, the Europeans, including Scholz, are apparently driven by fear in their hesitation, while they themselves are afraid of consider Putin’s “escalation of dominance” to be extremely dangerous.
Sixth, what is the point of American and European arms shipments, apart from allowing Ukraine to hold its ground (in Scholz’s sense) or win the war (in Biden’s sense)?
“We both want peace.” Says Biden and means Selenskyj and himself. There is peace when Putin says: “Pull out”. So withdraw his troops from Ukraine. “But that’s not going to happen,” says Biden. Ergo: The USA expects a long war. And now?
Biden: “Ukraine cannot be victorious on the battlefield without our help and that of our European allies.” And what follows from this? Biden: “We are empowering this president to decide how to end this war.”
In other words, without further deliveries of arms, Zelenskyy cannot fight for the freedom to decide on peace. At the end of this unique visit, which began on a Ukrainian train and was made possible by an American military plane taking off from Polish soil, there is a paradox that is very difficult for the Germans to understand:
Make peace with more and more weapons.