WASHINGTON, D.C. — The U.S. may not be waging a conventional war with Russia, but there are different kinds of battles at play, including Ukrainians’ bid to leverage public sympathy in the U.S. as the best way to move the country’s decision-makers.
From using social media to a giant screen projecting Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy talking to the U.S. Congress March 16, Ukrainians have successfully wooed a key audience in their effort to keep their country from falling to Russia.
Lawmakers from the main political parties in the U.S., who can’t agree on anything, applauded Zelenskyy, knowing their constituencies — from small towns to big cities — have been rooting for Ukraine.
On March 15, Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova made an appearance before Washington journalists at the National Press Club, asking for weapons, humanitarian aid, diplomatic efforts to secure safe corridors and more sanctions.
“War crimes have been committed,” she said. “And there is only one reason why Russians are doing it: They’re trying to use this terror to scare us into submission and make sure or force us, through this terror, to surrender.”
The following day, U.S. President Joe Biden seemed to follow the Ukrainian ambassador’s lead, calling Russian President Vladimir Putin “a war criminal.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken also said March 17 he “personally” believed war crimes have been committed in Ukraine.
In a country that loves to root for the underdog, Ukraine’s plight has captured the U.S. imagination.
U.S. towns and cities fly the yellow and blue Ukrainian flag. Americans have organized to raise money for Ukraine via bake sales and concerts.
A Washington restaurant is even offering a drink, the Spicy Zelensky, made with Ukrainian vodka, the restaurant says, with part of the drink’s March profits going to the World Central Kitchen, which has been feeding war victims flooding neighboring Eastern European nations.
During his address to Congress, broadcast via major networks in the U.S., Zelenskyy played a clip that started with smiling Ukrainians, manicured pastoral towns and modern cities. It slowly evolved into a condensed version of the three-week nightmare Ukrainians have endured: men and women crying, children dying, entire towns, and cities destroyed by bombs and tanks.
His audience went beyond the U.S. lawmakers gathered to watch it.
“Russia has attacked not just us, not just our land, not just our cities. It went on a brutal offensive against our values, basic human values,” Zelenskyy said. “It threw tanks and planes against our freedom, against our right to live freely in our own country, choosing our own future, against our desire for happiness, against our national dreams, just like the same dreams you have, you Americans.”
The images and his words took listeners back to moments in the U.S., Pearl Harbor, the attacks of 9/11 that gutted the American soul.
“Remember Pearl Harbor, terrible morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when your sky was black from the planes attacking you. Just remember it,” he said. “Remember September the 11th, a terrible day in 2001 when evil tried to turn your cities, independent territories, in battlefields, when innocent people were attacked, attacked from air, yes.”
That’s what Ukraine has gone through but for much longer.
“Our country experiences the same every day. Right now at this moment, every night for three weeks now,” he said. “Various Ukrainian cities, Odessa and Kharkiv, Chernihiv and Sumy, Zhytomyr and Lviv, Mariupol and Dnipro, Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people.”
Biden pledged Stinger antiaircraft missiles, drones and other weapons, as part of $800 million in new military aid but still refused to give what Zelenskyy keeps asking for: “Close the skies over Ukraine.”
Such a move, President Biden said March 11, will lead to the worst possible outcome.
“We will not fight a war against Russia in Ukraine,” he said, when asked about not enforcing a no-fly zone. “Direct confrontation between NATO and Russia is World War Three, something we must strive to prevent. But we already know Putin’s war against Ukraine will never be a victory.”
It was a message repeated March 17 by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who said that a “no-fly zone means you’re in a conflict with Russia,” adding that there is “no such thing as a no-fly zone lite.”