More than applause: what Zelensky needs from his address to the Australian parliament
30 Mar 2022|

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will give a powerful, emotional address to the Australian parliament tomorrow—as he’s delivered to the Japanese Diet; the Danish, Canadian, UK, Irish and French parliaments; the German Bundestag; and the US Congress.

He’s likely to show our parliamentarians graphic footage of the suffering that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war is inflicting on the 44 million Ukrainians, and images of Ukrainian military success and determination.

He’ll be grateful for Australia’s political and materiel support and ask for the things he and his people,  and forces, need to continue their fight against Russian military aggression.

Zelensky is pragmatic and driven. In his desperate and determined work with his people and military to defend their lives and homes, he will probably be more grateful and gracious than he should be because he wants, and needs, more from us—meaning the EU, the US, NATO and other partners like Australian and Japan—than we have so far been willing to give.

He may not say what we need to hear, including that, as the war goes on, we can’t take continued Ukrainian success for granted, even with military aid from Australia, the US and NATO partners.

A wartime leader can’t sow doubt with his people, and Ukrainians can have nothing but pride in what they’re doing in the face of unconstrained Russian aggression.

The Ukrainian military, government and people have inflicted huge losses on Putin’s forces, to the point where it seems the Russians will agree to a kind of ceasefire, or at least a pause in major attacks, simply because they have to.

But that’s likely to just be an opportunity for the Russians to gather strength to renew the war. As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said about Putin perhaps agreeing to a ceasefire with Zelensky: ‘[There’s] what Russia says, and what Russia does, and we’re focused on the latter. What Russia is doing is the continued brutalisation of Ukraine.’

And the tempo of Ukrainian operations, amid the humanitarian tragedy and physical destruction Russia is inflicting, must be exhausting.

The last thing that’s in Australia’s interests—or the interests of any person who believes in freedom and living our lives without the fear of war—is Vladimir Putin conquering any more Ukrainian territory; killing more Ukrainian men, women and children; or defeating the Ukrainian government and its forces.

From the start of the war, set policy positions about what the EU, the US, NATO and other partners would and wouldn’t do have been stated strongly and then changed.

Three days into the war, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz changed decades of enduring, unchangeable national defence policy in a short speech to the Bundestag. Before the speech, it was a simple fact that Germany would never supply arms to countries in conflict and wouldn’t spend at least 2% of its GDP on defence. Scholz changed all that in a few sentences, receiving broad support from the German public and across the aisles in the Bundestag—because it is the right thing to do in the face of Putin’s war and Ukrainian resistance and will.

So, ‘unthinkables’ for the US, NATO and the EU have become ‘thinkable’ as the expectations about a war not being likely were overturned, and as other expectations about Russian military success and rapid Ukrainian collapse were broken by Zelensky and the Ukrainian military.

If a stalemate between the Russian military and successful but strained Ukrainian forces is what we see in the coming weeks, should it be out of the question for NATO forces to move into the large part of Ukraine controlled by Ukrainian forces, not to fight the Russians but to ensure that Russia doesn’t attack and conquer more Ukrainian territory?

Why should this be out of bounds if the alternative is watching the successful Ukrainians collapse because the world’s, including Australia’s, support to them isn’t enough?

Let’s mention a core unthinkable. Why shouldn’t Putin feel the weight of NATO’s nuclear deterrent power when he contemplates attacking such NATO—and coalition partner—ground forces in Ukraine?

So far, Russia’s nuclear weapons and Putin’s rhetoric have deterred the US and the rest of NATO from doing anything but providing limited, indirect support to Ukraine. It’s as if Putin alone has these weapons of mass destruction, with no nuclear balance between Russia and NATO.

The powerful US and broader NATO nuclear inventories haven’t given Putin a moment’s pause in his killing inside Ukraine, because US and NATO leaders have communicated no will to make Putin understand the continuing deterrent power of the US’s and NATO’s nuclear weapons. But putting a boundary on Putin’s ability to attack NATO forces by reminding him of what is at stake would reassert a nuclear balance that’s needed well beyond Ukraine.

Unthinkables that constrain what the EU, the US, NATO and other partners do need to be revisited and challenged as the war unfolds. Not doing so hands advantages to Putin because, as we’ve seen in the war so far, it gives him big certainties to plan against. And certainties are always useful in the fog of war.

Beyond the military aspects of the war, we need to expand humanitarian assistance to Ukrainians inside Ukraine and to those who have been able to move as refugees outside their country.

And we need commit to post-war rebuilding of Ukraine, which has suffered billions of dollars of lost infrastructure from Putin’s indiscriminate killing and destruction. This commitment while the war continues will do something powerful: it will demonstrate resolve and a vision of hope that shows Ukrainians a glimpse of a better future at a time when they need it.

We must also be ruthlessly creative in expanding international sanctions against Russia while Putin continues his war, making clear that other parties that help Russia avoid sanctions (like the ones on Russian banks) and so facilitate trade with the Russian economy are an area for tightening. That will make it harder for Beijing and Chinese companies to support Putin through ‘normal trade’, for example.

In all this, Australia is a junior partner to the EU, the US and NATO, but we have an important voice—and a triple-A credit rating.

Zelensky will almost certainly say this to the Australian parliament, but it’s fundamental to understand: the war in Ukraine is really being fought by the Ukrainian people for all of us. He and his people are fighting to show that naked aggression and indiscriminate mass killing must be resisted and to show that even a major power like Russia cannot simply get its way by force.

If the Ukrainian president fails, then Putin and that other leader of an aggressive authoritarian power, Xi Jinping in Beijing, will be licensed to do what they have told us they intend to: dictate the choices of other nations and peoples because of their willingness to use force.

As our parliamentarians and government ministers listen to Zelensky, they will need to have this in mind. And they must really listen to what he and his country need, without seeing all the assumptions about what is and isn’t possible as set in stone.

If Australia really understands what is at stake in Ukraine, President Zelensky will get a lot more out of his speech than applause.