Week-in-Review: Zelensky’s political mastery will secure fighter jets and more for Ukraine

Stood atop Westminster Hall’s famous stairs, steeped ethereally in the winter Sun, there was something conspicuously Messianic about Volodymyr Zelensky’s address on Wednesday. The huddled masses, comprising the great and the good of Westminster society, stood in hushed awe of the Ukrainian President. They were his disciples, humbled before the presence of Ukraine’s warrior king, enrobed in his trademark khaki tracksuit and combat boots. SNP defence spokesperson Dave Doogan was the loudest of the assembled faithful; “Slava Ukraini!”, he cried, as Zelensky slinked to the pulpit, solemn address palmed. 

The sermon itself was emotional but focussed. “I have come here and stand before you on behalf of the brave, on behalf of our warriors”, ran Zelensky’s opening words, contoured by his raw, enrapturing rasp. The audience, congregated beneath the ancient beams of Westminster Hall, were immediately hooked. 

A series of well-worked anecdotes followed. Casting MPs’ minds back to Autumn 2020, before Russian tanks had rolled over the Ukrainian border, Zelensky recounted his first visit to the UK and the “delicious English tea” he shared with Speaker Lindsay Hoyle. To pin-drop silence, he spoke fondly of the time he sat in Winston Churchill’s armchair as part of a trip to the famous War Rooms in Whitehall. “I suddenly felt something”, Zelensky recalled. “But it is only now that I know what the feeling was. And all Ukrainians know it perfectly well, too. It is a feeling of how bravery takes you through the most unimaginable hardships to finally reward you with victory”. Cue rapturous applause. 

Then came the Churchillian allegories, as Zelensky picked at MPs’ collective memory of European wars past. “In Britain, the King is an air force pilot”, said Zelensky; a beat passed before he continued: “And in Ukraine today, every air force pilot is a king, for us, for our families, because they are so few”. It was a deliberate echo of the Battle of Britain — reminding MPs that Ukraine, too, is a nation standing alone before a ruthless dictator.

The high-powered rhetoric, of course, dressed up a not-so-carefully concealed political message. Zelensky wants the UK to give Ukraine fighter jets, as the country stares down an expected spring offensive by Putin’s forces. The flattery and Churchillian rhetoric were invoked as means to this very specific end. 

“We have freedom, give us wings to protect it”, Zelensky continued in another artful, rhetorically weighty aside. Next, the helmet of a Ukrainian air force pilot was unboxed and gladly received by the Speaker in a deeply moving act of political theatre. Each cheer and every extended round of applause was getting the Ukrainian president closer to his goal.

Zelensky has a proven track record of persuading Britain to give him what he wants. Through 2022, then-PM Boris Johnson never found a commitment to Ukraine he didn’t like. Imagining himself as Ukraine’s doughtiest intercontinental champion, the force of Johnson’s advocacy has placed both him and the UK at the forefront of a pro-Ukraine international alliance. And notably, Rishi Sunak’s recent pledge of fourteen Challenger 2 tanks underlines that Britain’s commitment to Ukraine is deepening not weakening. 

Duly, President Zelensky thanked Britain and Johnson’s leadership in turn. “Great Britain, you extended your helping hand when the world had not yet come to understand how to react”. Turning to Johnson, who had he no issue locating in the vast, packed hall, the Ukrainian president continued: “Boris, you got others united when it seemed absolutely, absolutely impossible”.

“Thank you”, Zelensky said, eyes locked with the former PM who nodded contentedly.

Zelensky will be aware of Johnson’s continued presence in UK politics. The nature of Johnson’s post-prime ministerial positioning would undoubtedly have been a topic of conversation during his recent visit to Kyiv. Given this, Zelensky’s decision to acknowledge Johnson in his speech is both noteworthy and deeply politically potent. 

It seems to be an attempt to leverage Johnson’s activism as a means to force Sunak to act. The subtext read: Boris never let Ukraine down, will you Rishi?

Zelensky closed his speech by ramping up the pressure on the prime minister. The Ukrainian president quipped he had left parliament two years earlier grateful for “delicious English tea”, now he was leaving parliament thanking MPs, in advance, “for powerful English planes”. The audience laughed and cheered in equal measure. He had won over Westminster Hall bar none. 

The speech was also a set up for Zelensky’s second public appearance of the day, this time alongside Sunak at a news conference in Dorset. The PM was asked half a dozen times whether the UK would be giving fighter jets; Sunak equivocated, but added that “nothing is off the table” and denied any suggestion of UK reticence.

After the curtains were drawn on Wednesday’s events, few were left in any doubt: Zelensky will get his planes, he has made it virtually impossible for Sunak not to give him what he asked.