US President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy are men of different generations, countries and styles, and with very different missions.
Zelenskyy is fighting to save his nation. Biden to restore a shattered world order, without starting a world war.
The contrasts were vividly on display Wednesday. First, the Ukrainian leader delivered an impassioned plea to Congress for additional military assistance to fight the three-week Russian invasion. Then came Biden, with a more technocratic speech promising more weapons and humanitarian assistance but making clear the limits of what the United States is willing to do.
Zelenskyy, 44, was vigorous though unshaven and fatigued. In military green, he called for lethal assistance via video link from a nondescript bunker. The nearly 80-year-old Biden was serious when he spoke of sanctions and coalition building from the made-for-TV set built next to the White House.
“I am almost 45 years old; today my age stopped when the hearts of more than 100 children stopped beating,” Zelenskyy told US lawmakers. “I don’t see the point of life if you can’t stop the deaths.”
Speaking for 15 minutes, he invoked uniquely American moments of conflict and meaning: the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 attacks, Martin Luther King Jr.’s quest for civil rights. He called on Biden to be “the leader of the peace”.
It marked the last stop on Zelenskyy’s live-streamed world tour as he seeks to portray Ukraine as defending more than just his own country and tries to provoke even harsher military and other action against Russia.
“We are fighting for the values of Europe and the world,” he told lawmakers.
Zelenskyy pleaded with the US to get more directly involved in helping his people, including for the US to help Ukraine obtain Soviet-made planes to use against Russia and for a forced no-fly zone over Ukraine, even if he acknowledged that it was unlikely. Biden warned that complying with such requests could bring Russia and the US, two nuclear-armed nations, into direct conflict. It’s a risk you’re not willing to take.
Biden watched Zelenskyy’s speech from the White House residence and called it “powerful.”
His own comments, three hours and half as long later, were less lofty, delivered from a small auditorium studio to a roomful of reporters. He spoke of what the United States can do now, stopping far short of granting everything Zelenskyy sought.
Biden has spent the past several months working to align NATO allies and Group of Seven partners behind tough economic sanctions against Russia. That began as an attempt to prevent invasion and has now turned into an effort to ensure that the conflict leaves Russia isolated and economically weakened.
Biden marked the arms of the US to come in the last leg of missiles, drones and bullets. He reviewed the sanctions already imposed on Russia and the humanitarian assistance flowing into Ukraine. However, while lamenting the horrific casualties so far, he expressed America’s interest in the conflict in terms of protecting democracy around the world, rather than focusing on Ukraine itself.
“What is at stake here are the principles that the United States and the United Nations stand for around the world,” Biden said. “This is about freedom. It is about the right of people to determine their own future. It’s about making sure that Ukraine will never, ever be a victory for Putin, no matter what gains he makes on the battlefield.”
Max Bergmann, a former State Department official who is now a senior fellow at the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress, said that despite their general alignment, Biden and Zelenskyy are playing very different roles.
For Zelenskyy, “this is an existential threat to him. The very survival of Ukraine is at stake here.” The Ukrainian leader, he said, shows “determination and despair”.
Biden, he said, is showing empathy for Zelenskyy’s position. “This is not just moving chess pieces around the chessboard. It’s about defending a country that fights for freedom.”
But Biden, he said, has limits. “There is going to be a difference and we just have to understand that. That’s part of what it means to be the leader of the free world, which is weighing those competing demands.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki acknowledged the divergent interests,
“If we were President Zelenskyy, we would also be asking for everything possible,” Psaki said. “But the way President Biden makes decisions is through the prism of our own national security.”
Daniel Fried, a former US ambassador to Poland, says Biden’s age, and coming of age during the Cold War, helps him understand the stakes in a different way than the Ukrainian leader.
“Biden does not look at Zelenskyy with cold indifference,” Fried said. “He grew up with those lessons.”
“The Ukrainians have support. And I think they feel it. But very hard tests await us.”
AP journalist Colleen Long contributed to this report.
EDITOR’S NOTE — Miller and Megerian cover the White House for The Associated Press.