Stood atop the stairs in Westminster Hall, where Queen Elizabeth lay in state, Volodymyr Zelensky, clad in khaki, delivered a familiar message: thank you for sending help, please send more.
This was only the Ukrainian president’s second foreign visit since the Russian invasion in the early hours of 24 February last year. He addressed the British parliament a couple of weeks later, but that time his message was live-streamed from a bunker 1,300 miles away onto screens in the Commons chamber. At the time, his gratitude to Boris Johnson helped to quell a plot to remove the prime minister.
Zelensky has the power to subdue divisions at Westminster. At Prime Minister’s Questions, an hour before he spoke, Keir Starmer praised British unity in support for the Ukraine. The Labour leader went so far as to call for Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, to be brought before International Criminal Court in the Hague to stand trial, and said that frozen Russian assets should be used to rebuild Ukraine when the war ends.
Zelensky’s objective was to unite British politicians in support of sending his country military jets. He is extremely popular among MPs of all parties. Beneath the stairs in Westminster Hall, MPs and ministers jostled for the best views. When Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker of the House of Commons, brought Zelensky onto the platform the president raised his arms to whoops and cheers. The hall was so crammed that Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, had to lean against the wall behind a speaker.
Zelenksy spoke Ukrainian in his video address last March. This time he spoke in a guttural English. He recounted his trip to London in October 2020: sitting in the armchair from which Churchill issued orders in the war rooms under the Foreign Office; visiting parliament. “We enjoyed… tea,” he said with comic timing. He praised the character of his audience in the first few days of the war. “You all showed your grit and character, that strong British character. You didn’t compromise Ukraine. And hence, you didn’t compromise your ideals.”
His oration was persuasive. “He’s good,” whispered one MP to a colleague. “Amazing,” a shadow cabinet member said afterwards. Another MP clapped for so long that his hands turned red.
Zelensky cast the war against Russia as a fight between everything that is valuable in life and the evil ingrained in human nature. “The victory will change the world and this will be a change that the world has long needed,” he said, his voice echoing around the hall. “The United Kingdom is marching with us towards I think the most important victory of our lifetime.”
“Thank you, Britain,” he concluded.
After the expression of gratitude came a candid request. “I appeal to you and the world with simple and yet most important words: combat aircrafts for Ukraine. Wings for freedom.”
[See also: Volodymyr Zelensky needed to visit Washington]