How Zelenskyy has channelled his inner Churchill to sustain Ukraine's war effort

It wasn't just the 'V for victory' gesture during his visit to London that showed the parallels between the two leaders

Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the White House in 2022 and British prime minister Winston Churchill at the White House in 1942. AP
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President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed the British parliament this week just metres from the spot where his great hero Winston Churchill had lain in state on an ornate dais in 1965, receiving the gratitude of the nation he had saved from being squashed.

Not for the first time the Churchillian spirit seemed to fill the Ukraine leader, who later this month will mark a year of his nation at war.

Mr Zelenskyy held up his hand in Churchill's V for victory gesture and his speech recalled his moving experience when visiting the UK's Cabinet War Rooms, a relic of the wartime prime minister's command post, in late 2020.

“There is an armchair in the War Rooms, the famous Churchill armchair, and a guide smiled and offered for me to sit down on this armchair, from which orders were given,” said Mr Zelenskyy as he addressed both houses in the 900-year-old Westminster Hall.

“And he asked me how did I feel.

“I said that I suddenly felt something, but it is only now that I know what the feeling was, and all Ukrainians know it perfectly well, too.

“It is the feeling of how bravery takes you through the most unimaginable hardships to finally reward you with victory.”

Admiration for the Ukrainian leader's response to the Russian invasion of his country in the small hours of February 24 is strong in the UK and often comes referenced to the man who led Britain in its darkest and its finest hour.

Only 13 days after the war started, Mr Zelenskyy was beamed via video link to the Houses of Commons where, on two TV screens hanging from the galleries, he struck the same rhythm of Churchill's often-remembered Dunkirk fighting speech of 1940.

“We will not give up, and we will not lose,” said Mr Zelenskyy.

“We will fight till the end — at sea, in the air, we will continue fighting for our land whatever the cost. We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets.”

As shown by his speech, Mr Zelenskyy himself does not discourage the comparison, though he has often denied that he sees himself as Churchill MkII, 80 years on.

Former UK prime minister Boris Johnson, who is a biographer of Churchill, told Mr Zelenskyy in an awards ceremony last year that the great man would have admired the guts that the Ukraine leader displayed as Russian tanks rolled towards Kyiv, a city under cruise missile bombardment.

“I think Churchill would have cheered and probably would have wept, too, because he was often moved to tears, at the sheer courage, the moral, physical courage, you showed in those grim weeks,” Mr Johnson said. “The global wave of solidarity for Ukraine was in large measure generated by your own, personal articulation of [your] cause, your defiance, your dignity. Your unfailing good humour has moved millions.

“You've become a symbol of the heroism of the Ukrainian people.”

Mr Johnson added he could imagine the Second World War leader walking in spirit with Mr Zelenskyy, jabbing at the way forward with his stick and marvelling at the former Ukrainian television comedian's “contempt for danger”.

On his trip to London, Paris and Brussels this week, Mr Zelenskyy came with demands for support, particularly military backing that includes modern fast fighter jets for his country. As he did on a visit to Washington in December, Mr Zelenskyy took the billions already sent to Ukraine with thanks and added to his wishlist.

For those with a historical vantage point, the 5'7" Ukraine leader is the same height as Mr Churchill. He is also the same height as his hosts on this rare visit outside Ukraine, Britain's new leader Rishi Sunak, France's Emmanuel Macron and Germany's Olaf Scholz.

One of Mr Churchill's granddaughters said she certainly saw the shared qualities they had displayed as leaders. “To my mind, there has never been an easier case to make than that for President Zelenskyy as a wartime leader, showing so many of the same characteristics as my grandfather: bravery, courage, grace under pressure, and a very close relationship with his people,” Emma Soames told the International Churchill Society. “The parallels go on and on.”

When he was criticised on social media this week for not wearing a suit and tie — as he had done on the trip to the Churchill War Rooms in 2020 — his defenders pointed to the boiler suit that Churchill had worn. The British leader called it the “siren suit” after the air raid warnings that would sound out in London, and the green velvet he favoured was not dissimilar in colour to the Zelenskyy fatigues.

The outfit made something of a selling point for its maker Turnbull & Asser, and the same is happening for M-Tac, the tactical clothing firm that supplies the Ukrainian President.

In cajoling the US and its allies into support, Mr Zelenskyy is aping Mr Churchill's Lend-Lease speeches to America in early 1941 in which he declared that Washington should “give us the tools and we will do the job”.

Diplomats and officials across Europe and the US acknowledge Mr Zelenskyy's relentless pitch as something that cannot be resisted over time. “President Zelenskyy's own strategic communications have been amazing. I don't think I've seen a leader in my lifetime resonate that well globally,” one western official said during the Ukrainian leader's visit to Britain.

As for personal comparisons, Mr Zelenskyy says it is all about the challenge faced by the two countries decades apart. “We are fighting and we are defending ourselves, just like the horrific challenges in the 20th century. Just like then, the facts of leadership are decisive.

“No one knows how much time and effort it will take to achieve that victory but it will be worthwhile and this will become our shared history as prominent as it was in Churchill's time, and we will be quoted just as he was since.”

Updated: February 12, 2023, 1:14 PM