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Churchill, a helmet and a plea for planes: Zelenskiy’s speech at a glance

<span>Photograph: Reuters</span>
Photograph: Reuters

It was a speech rich in emotion, humour and, as you might expect from an actor turned politician, not a small amount of drama. But addressing British parliamentarians in Westminster Hall on Wednesday, Volodymyr Zelenskiy had some very specific asks. Here is a potted rundown of his half-hour speech.

A nation at war

The Ukrainian president’s opening gambit was the perhaps inevitable but eloquent statement of what was at stake. “I have come here and stand before you on behalf of the brave, on behalf of our warriors, who are now in the trenches under enemy artillery fire,” he began. The audience, already paying very close attention, were immediately stilled.

The Churchill connection

Several times in the speech, Zelenskiy mentioned his first visit to London as Ukraine’s leader, in October 2020, before the Russian invasion. Near the start, he recalled being taken to the Churchill War Rooms in London and being invited to sit in the wartime leader’s armchair, before being asked what he felt. At the time, Zelenskiy said, he could not explain it. Now he understood: “It is a feeling of how bravery takes you through the most unimaginable hardships to finally reward you with victory.”

It was again perhaps an obvious but notably resonant parallel: you in the UK were also once at war against your will and facing significant odds, which you overcame.

An assurance Ukraine will prevail

Zelenskiy made no promises of rapid victory. But several times he was at pains to summon up a future in which Ukraine fought off Russia and the sacrifices brought reward.

Mentioning the “new” evil that had emerged after the cold war, he asked his audience: “Do you have a feeling that the evil will crumble once again? I can see it in your eyes, now – we think the same way as you do. We know freedom will win. After we win together, any aggressor, it doesn’t matter big or small, will know what awaits him if he attacks the international order.”

In this same vein, there was a reference to post-conflict tribunals to hold Russia to account, and to “compensate those who have suffered from terror”.

A thanks to the UK – and to Boris Johnson

A particularly carefully crafted part of the address made great effort to praise the UK for what it has done for Ukraine so far, before Zelenskiy made his request for more weaponry. “Thank you for the NLAW and the Javelin, which stopped the advance of the Russian army from the first day of the invasion,” he said, citing anti-tank weapons supplied.

There was also a personal reference to the former prime minister, sitting near the front of the hall: “Great Britain, you extended your helping hand when the world had not yet come to understand how to react. Boris – you got others united when it seemed absolutely, absolutely impossible. Thank you.”

The current prime minister also got a first-name thank you, even if the way Zelenskiy said “Rishi” perhaps did not sound quite so heartfelt.

Praise for Charles – and a demand for planes

The first part of Zelenskiy’s main point – please give us advanced fighter jets, and some tanks – was contained in a section hailing the new king, with a reference to his brief period flying RAF planes half a century ago. “In Britain, the king is an air force pilot,” Zelenskiy said. “And in Ukraine today, every air force pilot is a king.”

The sales pitch as a present

Related: How Volodymyr Zelenskiy spent his day in Britain

As is customary for such addresses, Zelenskiy was introduced by the Commons speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, who sat nearby as the Ukrainian president spoke. Observers noted an aide standing stage left holding what looked like a hat box. At the pivotal moment of the speech, Hoyle was presented with the contents – a white pilot’s helmet.

Zelenskiy explained that it belonged to a particularly high-achieving Ukrainian air force pilot, and pointed out the message written on it: “We have freedom, give us wings to protect it.” This was, the president said, “our next coalition” in the war: “Combat aircraft for Ukraine. Wings for freedom.”

The final payoff

Sunak’s Downing Street has played down the idea of supplying Ukraine with Typhoon fighters, pointing to training regimes measured in years rather than months. But Zelenskiy has broken down European reticence to provide other weapons, and he is not giving up.

“Speaking to the parliament two years ago, I thanked you for the delicious English tea,” he ended. “I will be leaving the parliament today thanking all of you in advance for powerful English planes.” Cue loud applause from many of the MPs who are able to directly put pressure on the government.