WASHINGTON — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky told President Biden and European leaders who had gathered in Brussels for a NATO summit that his nation was in a “gray zone,” struggling to hold on against a Russian occupation as Western allies watched from the sidelines. It was a grim assessment and a plea for help.
“A month of unpunished destruction of the peaceful state, and with it — the whole architecture of global security. All this is before the eyes of the whole world,” Zelensky said in Thursday’s address, which he delivered from a besieged Kyiv. Much as he did in last week’s speech to Congress, he painted the defense of Ukraine as a fight against autocracy.
“They invested crazy money in death while the world invested in life,” Zelensky said of Russia, according to an English-language transcript of his remarks provided by his office. “But Ukraine is holding on bravely! At the cost of thousands of lives. At the cost of destroyed cities. At the cost of almost 10 million migrants.”
Ukraine is not a member of NATO, and Russian President Vladimir Putin has made clear that he would see its membership in the alliance as a direct threat. At the same time, some worry that he has designs on the three Baltic nations, which were, like Ukraine, once part of the Soviet Union and eagerly joined NATO when offered the chance to do so. Like Ukraine, the three countries — Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia — share a significant land border with Russia and Moscow-aligned Belarus. Were Putin to attack there, NATO would be required to mount a military defense, thus potentially triggering a global war.
A former actor who has shown himself to be a deft politician, Zelensky understands NATO’s desperation to avoid war with a nuclear power like Russia. He is also aware that global sentiment is squarely on Ukraine’s side. Since the Russian invasion began last month, he has used social media to highlight the plight of ordinary Ukrainians as they endure a relentless Russian aerial assault. So far, however, his most ambitious request — for the West to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine — has gone unmet.
Zelensky acknowledged frustration with the Western response to that request. “We did not hear a clear answer,” he said. “Ukraine does not have powerful anti-missile weapons, and has a much smaller aircraft fleet than Russia. Therefore, their advantage in the sky is like the use of weapons of mass destruction.”
Poor planning and execution on the Kremlin’s part have proved something of a reprieve for Zelensky. But with a vastly bigger military, Russia can afford to turn the conflict into an enervating stalemate. Ukraine cannot, especially as humanitarian conditions there rapidly deteriorate.
“The Ukrainian army has been resisting for a month in unequal conditions! And I have been repeating the same thing for a month now. To save people and our cities, Ukraine needs military assistance — without restrictions,” Zelensky told the leaders gathered in Brussels. In recent days, he has spoken — and appealed — to leaders in Japan, Italy, Israel, France and Germany, connecting the specific history of each country with Ukraine’s own plight.
The United States announced $800 million in new military aid last week, and NATO said on Wednesday that it was doubling the number of battle groups on its eastern flank. It will also deliver equipment to Ukraine to help defend against a biological or chemical attack, which some observers and diplomats fear is imminent.
Zelensky used Thursday’s speech to ask for heavier military firepower than the shoulder-fired antitank and antiaircraft weapons the West has been shipping to Ukraine. “You can give us 1% of all your aircraft. One percent of all your tanks. One percent!" Even as he did so, the Ukrainian president made clear that NATO was not to blame for the devastation of the last four weeks.
“You are not guilty. It’s not your missiles, it’s not your bombs that are destroying our cities,” he said from the unadorned office from which he has been speaking to the world, dressed in a green pullover and with a beard darkening the outlines of his jaw.
Still, he couldn’t help alluding to the debate over the NATO membership that he and some of his predecessors have been requesting for years.
“After such a war against Russia ... never, please, never tell us again that our army does not meet NATO standards,” he said.
He ended his address with a plainspoken plea. “Our needs are on the table,” Zelensky said. “We need peace immediately. The answers are up to you.”