Volodymyr Zelenskyy's Speech to Congress: An Analysis
As usual with the Ukrainian leader, his speech to the U.S. Congress on Wednesday was clear, emotional, and effective
Image: Drew Angerer/Pool Via Reuters
On March 16th, the leader of the beleaguered nation of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy,1 addressed a joint session of the United States Congress. An analysis of a translation of the speech's transcript, primarily delivered in Ukrainian, illuminates Zelenskyy’s overall persuasion strategy, which is built on two arguments and one question:
Ukrainians are a brave people whose fundamental human rights are under attack
Russia’s aggression is no different from what America itself has suffered in the past
I am prepared to die for freedom — are you?
Zelenskyy begins with a greeting that establishes the gravity of his situation:
Americans, friends. I am proud to greet you from Ukraine, from our capital city of Kyiv, the city under missile and airstrikes from Russians every day.
When united with the image the audience saw as he spoke — a young president dressed in combat colors — his opening establishes his identity as a soldier at war. This opening suggests to his audience that the speech they are about to hear will be the simple words of a leader in combat more than the polished remarks of a professional orator.
Zelenskyy makes his first point at the very start of his speech, painting his people as brave, resolute, and worthy of admiration from the men and women who lead the most powerful nation on earth. Ukraine he says, “does not give up.” In fact, “we have not even thought about it for a second.” Like a general speaking about his brave soldiers, Zelenskyy wants us to know that the people he leads — and who ask for help from America — are worthy of admiration and will fight with their dying breath against their invaders.
The destiny of these brave people, he adds, hangs in the balance. The actions of the world will determine “whether Ukrainians will be free, whether they will be able to preserve their democracy.” This is because “Russia has attacked not just us, not just our land, our cities;” indeed, it is on a brutal offensive against “our freedom, our right to live freely, choosing our own future” and even “against our national dreams.” This is an effective opening that both elevates the Ukrainian people while at the same time speaking against “Russia,” the state, but not its citizens.
As Aristotle pointed out, there are three modes of persuasion: character, argument, and emotion. Having “checked off” the character box right at the start, Zelenskyy then moves to his primary argument, which is that Russia’s invasion is equivalent to Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor and the events of 9/11 — a day, he says, “when people tried to turn your cities into battlefields.” As with the Japanese in 1941 and al-Qaeda in 2001, Russia, Zelenskyy says evocatively, “has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people.” Whatever the logical merit of this comparison, to an American audience the unification of World War II Japan, al-Qaeda, and Russia, is a powerfully persuasive statement. It works because Zelenskyy speaks not as a historian but as a commander at war and because many in the audience would already be pre-disposed to accept his comparison. The U.S. and Russia have been adversaries for decades, and Zelenskyy uses that history in a clever way to establish a moral equivalency that links Russia with the two most infamous days in American history.
Zelenskyy extends his primary argument by claiming that just as America could not be faulted for what Japan and al-Qaeda did to it in their attacks, neither does Ukraine hold any responsibility for its current suffering. “You could not stop it,” he says, and Ukraine is as helpless today as the Americans who suffered on those fateful mornings in its past. Indeed, Russia has turned the clock back and its actions are “a terror Europe has not seen for 80 years.”
His primary argument complete, Zelensky moves on to the third section of his speech: what he wants from America. First on his list is the creation of a no-fly zone over Ukraine or, if that is too much to ask, the fighter jets we have and they desperately need, so the skies he has mentioned more than once in his speech can be defended. He makes this appeal in a surprising way: by equating himself to the civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.:
I have a dream. I have a need. I need to protect our skies. I need your help, which means the same you feel when you hear the words I have a dream.
It is not an effective comparison, though one can imagine that it may have seemed so to whoever wrote the speech. Unlike the comparison of Russia to Japan and al-Quaeda, it asks too much of an American audience to link Zelenskyy to King, and it is the speech’s one false note.
Next on his list of requests is that America fully sanction any Russian officials who still collaborate with Putin, that American companies sever all ties with Russia, and that the U.S. close all its ports to Russian goods. “Peace,” Zelenskyy adds, “is more important than income, and we have to defend this principle in the whole world.” He then makes a not so veiled critique of the United Nations and the other international organizations that have shown themselves incapable or unwilling to stop Russia’s illegal war.
As his speech draws to a close, Zelenskyy turns, as is common in deliberative oratory, to the emotional appeal, which he frames in the form of a challenge to the American leaders who are his audience. “To be the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace,” he says, which is why “today the American people are helping not just Ukraine, but Europe and the world to keep the planet alive. To keep justice in history.” It is worth noting that until now, Zelenskyy’z speech has been generally in line with what one would expect, but in his closing words Ukraine’s leader reaches a higher level:
I am almost 45 years old. Today my age stopped when the hearts of more than 100 children stopped beating. I see no sense in life if it cannot stop the deaths. This is my mission as a leader of my people, and as a leader of my nation.
This is the best part of his speech. His statement of middle-age — which is very unusual in a political speech — and his sorrow at the pain of Ukraine’s children humanizes him. His claim that his life has no meaning if he can’t protect his people elevates him. And his acceptance of his fate and duty as the leader of Ukraine ennobles him. It is a simple but effective use of character to persuade and it sets up beautifully what comes next:
I’m addressing president Biden. You are the leader of the nation, of your great nation. I wish you to be the leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.
Zelenskyy knows that in many ways the U.S. Congress has pushed President Biden to take stronger steps against Russia. Indeed, in many Conservative circles, Biden is being criticized for being scared of Russia and for letting Putin set the terms of the conflict. I am willing to die for democracy, Zelenskyy says plainly to Biden before asking: Are you? As Politico noted, the Republicans in Congress got Zelenskyy’s message loud and clear:
“Our own president needs to step up his game. We’re not doing nearly enough quickly enough to help the Ukrainians,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, adding: “Comparing Zelenskyy to Biden is depressing.”
“Thank you,” and “Glory to Ukraine” were Zelenskyy’s last words before signing off.
As the world has seen, Zelenskyy has deployed a simple and effective persuasion strategy since the start of the war that contrasts starkly with that of Putin. The Russian leader is typically shown in a dark suit, usually in a grand setting, and — speaking always in Russian — goes to great lengths to attack Ukraine’s leaders personally. Zelenskyy is the opposite. He dresses like a soldier, speaks from the street or in small spaces, and addresses the Russians directly — often in Russian — to appeal to the Russian people to stop Putin’s war. His style, as many commentators have noted, is clear, emotional, and effective.
In his speech, the Ukrainian leader gave America’s leader a challenge that is, in Zelenskyy’s mind at least, simple: Will you be like us and fight for a free world you claim to lead, or will you sit on the sidelines afraid of igniting a war that may have already started? By simple, I do not mean that Biden’s challenge is easy. A marathon is simple — start running and don’t stop for 26.2 miles — but its simplicity does not make the run easy. Biden’s ultimate answer to Zelenskyy’s challenge remains to be seen, but the Ukrainian leader made it clear to Biden on Wednesday that the world will be watching. That, I believe, was Zelenskyy’s persuasion goal for his speech, and it is a goal he met in his own brutally effective way.