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Thursday, May 19, 2022

What can Zelenskiy expect as he prepares to address the Commons? | Volodymyr Zelenskiy

President Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s speech by video link to the European parliament last week was so powerful it brought the English translator to the verge of tears. “Prove you are with us,” he said to leading EU politicians, a clear and emotive call for greater support that he is expected to replicate in Westminster on Tuesday.

The Russian invasion has already turned the khaki-wearing Ukrainian leader into the most powerful – and effective – political communicator in the world. The addresses from his office in Kyiv are designed to shift political and public opinion, and they have already had a dramatic impact.

A private speech to EU leaders a few days earlier is credited with helping bring forward tougher than expected sanctions on Russia from Brussels. In that address he told the gathered presidents and prime ministers he believed his life was under threat, and from their relative safety in the Belgian capital the continent’s leading politicians felt they had little choice but to step up.

Zelenskiy may have got his tough sanctions but they have not turned the tide in the war. Despite a chaotic and messy start, Russian forces continue to menace Kyiv and analysts at the Institute for the Study of War believe the start of attack on the capital could be 24 to 96 hours away.

What the Ukrainians want immediately is greater military support from the west, as demonstrated by another speech from the president – a private video address made to 280 members of the US Congress on Saturday. One of those listening was Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, who said Zelenskiy “made a desperate plea” for the implementation of a no-fly zone – or failing that more fighter planes and other advanced military aid.

'Not afraid of anyone': Zelenskiy says he will stay in Kyiv until war is won – video
‘Not afraid of anyone’: Zelenskiy says he will stay in Kyiv until war is won – video

Ukrainian officials told the Guardian he is expected to make similar remarks to the House of Commons on Tuesday (although his speeches tend to be extemporised, so it is hard to be certain: “I don’t read off the paper off this sheet because the paper phase in the life of my country is ended,” he told the European parliament). But that may not be what the British government wants to hear.

Boris Johnson is expected be in the Commons when Zelenskiy speaks. But he, in common with other Nato allies, has made clear he does not support a no-fly zone, partly because it is feared it could lead to a general war with Russia. “When it comes to a no-fly zone in the skies above Ukraine, we have to accept the reality of that involves shooting down Russian planes,” the UK prime minister said last week.

It may depend, therefore, on how Zelenskiy pitches his request. If Ukraine’s leader pivots, as he appeared to on Saturday, from asking for a no-fly zone towards an alternative demand for greater military aid, it could be effective. That would start with a call for Poland and other eastern European countries to supply Russian-made fighter jets of the type Ukraine’s pilots know how to fly.

Britain’s role here would be both to help persuade eastern European countries to part with their MiG-29s or similar and help provide replacement air support, and other more capable arms, such as air defence systems – all likely to be needed in the defence of Kyiv. The risk for Britain and the west is that greater rearmament will further provoke Russia, but facing a national existential crisis, Zelenskiy has no time to worry about that when he addresses MPs.

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