Sometimes it’s hard to see who has the upper-hand in the grim trench warfare going on in eastern Ukraine. But there’s no doubt who’s winning the PR war between Russia and the country it’s attacked.
Volodymyr Zelensky’s impeccably timed visit to Washington underlines how much better he is than Russia leader, Vladimir Putin, in winning hearts and minds in the outside world. The public relations advantage that Zelensky, a former actor, enjoys over a pasty-faced sociopath, and dictator, might not be surprising.
But its importance should not be underestimated. Zelensky came to Washington – and specifically Capitol Hill – to underline to the world America’s support of his beleaguered country – including the latest $1.85bn package that will expand Ukraine’s ability to take out incoming Russian airstrikes and continue counter-offensives.
The piece de resistance was the flag, signed by Ukrainian troops and collected by Zelensky personally on the Donetsk frontline, that he passed to the US Congress with an actor’s flourish. “They asked me to bring this flag to you, to the US Congress, to members of the House of Representatives and senators whose decisions can save millions of people,” Zelensky said in his final words to US lawmakers.
Americans love symbols, particularly those denoting patriotism and bravery. “So let these decisions be taken. Let this flag stay with you. Ladies and gentlemen, this flag is a symbol of our victory in this war.” Congress seemed to lap it up – despite Zelensky’s comedy Ukrainian accent. Who knows, it might even have helped.
The idea of a daring wartime trip by Volodymyr Zelensky to Washington was revealed just hours ahead of his arrival.
The visit wasn’t as last-minute as it seemed, however. Plans had been afoot since October when outgoing Democrat House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, discussed with her counterpart in the Ukrainian parliament the prospect of Zelensky addressing the US Congress.
White House officials had also mooted a Zelensky visit to Washington, hoping for a pre-Christmas appearance to show strong support ahead of a brutal winter that could deepen Putin’s assault or even lead to a new one from Russian satellite state, Belarus, in the north.
In addition to another $1.85bn in military aid, by the end of this week, Congress is also due to agree to $45bn in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine – an enormous sum, which puts European (and particularly French and German) donations to shame.
But even this largesse will only see Ukraine through to the spring. And in the new year, the Republican majority takes over in the House of Representatives.
The isolationist hard-right Republican leader, Kevin McCarthy, the expected leader of the House of Representatives next year, has already said there should be no more “blank cheques” for Ukraine.
In case we didn’t get the message, Maga-ultra figure and Putin sympathiser, Marjorie Taylor Greene, declared in November: “Under Republicans, not another penny will go to Ukraine,” she said during a stump speech last Thursday in Iowa. She’s unlikely to get her way.
The majority of Republicans will continue to back Ukraine in its fight for survival – and to support US aid. But maintaining the same level of Western – and in particular – American sympathy and generosity might be a tough task even for a leader with the charm of Volodymyr Zelensky.