Since Russia’s war against his country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has addressed elected representatives of several countries directly in search of international support. These speeches made clear reference to the parallels between the current plight of their country and the particular historical experiences of these nations.
This strategy is one of several that Zelensky has employed to successfully build international support for Ukraine. As scholars of the use of post-Soviet politics and historical memory, we find that Zelensky’s address helped garner global support in three major ways: he aroused popular sympathy for the Ukrainian people, and foreign governments. Enables to assess the interest of its people in supporting Ukraine, and highlights the importance of territorial sovereignty to world peace.
reference to historical parallels
Each of Zelensky’s speeches contained historical references that were deliberately crafted to resonate with the people of the nation he was addressing at the time.
For example, in his speech to the German Bundestag, he referred to the German people standing behind a wall “between freedom and slavery”. This led to the Berlin Wall’s division of Germany after World War II into two countries, one aligned with the democratic West, and the other with the Communist East.
He goes further back, referring to the “historic responsibility” of the German people, and the suffering suffered by millions of Europeans during World War II due to the Nazi regime’s aggressive territorial expansion and genocidal atrocities. reached. These references may be particularly powerful, given Zelensky’s own Jewish heritage.
Speaking to the Israel Knesset, Zelensky compared the current suffering and forced migration of its people, including fleeing the Holocaust, to the experiences of the European Jewish community in the 1930s and 1940s. In particular he said that the Ukrainian “people are now scattered around the world. They are looking for security. They are looking for a way to live in peace. As you once discovered.”
Addressing the US Congress, Zelensky referred to the magnitude of the unprovoked aggression from hostile foreign forces at Pearl Harbor and 9/11. He highlighted how these sudden and unexpected attacks wreaked havoc on the lives of “innocent people”.
Finally, speaking in the British Parliament, he quoted one of Winston Churchill’s most memorable speeches, delivered at a time when Britain was threatened by an expansionist power – Nazi Germany, and successfully resisted was. Zelensky then added his own twist, saying, “We will fight in the sea, we will fight in the air, we will defend our land, no matter what the cost. We will fight in the woods, in the fields, on the beaches, in cities and villages, in the streets.” We will fight in the hills. And I want to add: we will fight on the banks of Kalmyus and the Dnieper, on poor tips! And we will not surrender! ”
appeal to feelings
These historical parallels were intended to appeal to the sentiments of his audience, with the intention of inducing popular sympathy abroad. While politicians have long evoked history in their rhetoric, Zelensky’s use of history differs given its diversity and intended audience. His goal was not to unite his people, but to form an international coalition of support.
His historical references tapped into different emotions in different countries – trauma in the United States and Israel, shame and guilt in Germany, pride in the United Kingdom. But the underlying goal in each example was to force the people of these countries to remember their own past so that they could be sympathetic to the pain and suffering of the Ukrainian people today.
In addition, his appeal inspired widespread dialogue between the media and the public, evoking popular sentiment towards the conflict and allowing leaders to gauge reactions to the prospect of their country’s increased participation. Where people were more receptive to Zelensky’s historical similarities, leaders could feel more confident that their policies supporting Ukraine would receive widespread popular support.
The appeal of his message in Germany was evident when the immediate transition of the Bundestag to other matters of state after Zelensky’s speech attracted public outcry. Since then, Germany has continued to increase its aid.
Zelensky’s address to the US Congress caused concern and sympathy for the Ukrainian people, both among elected representatives and the public. Within hours of the speech, President Joe Biden announced an additional $800 million package of military aid for Ukraine.
Even before Zelensky’s speech, there was popular support for Ukraine among the British public. Leading up to the speech, the government was criticized for not doing enough to help Ukrainian refugees. Two days after the speech, the UK government announced changes to the visa application process for Ukrainian refugees.
In contrast, Zelensky’s efforts to make a connection between the current situation in Ukraine and the Holocaust drew criticism from across the political spectrum in Israel. Israel’s support for Ukraine has been relatively silent and cautious. The poor reception of this historical analogy played into Israel’s reluctance to support Ukraine.
a key shared ideal
Perhaps Zelensky’s best rhetorical strategy was his appeal to the liberal ideals of the post-World War II order. By threatening Ukraine’s territorial sovereignty, Russia has also threatened a fundamental principle of the largely peaceful era since 1945 – the sovereignty of one country.
They used this shared value in different ways. For example, he reminded the Americans when their territorial security was compromised and the British when they were protected through their resistance. But the goal was the same – to unite and mobilize international support behind their nation in an otherwise fragmented global environment.