Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska long has made clear she has no personal craving for the spotlight, yet on Wednesday she stood in the United States Capitol and made the case for more US air defence systems to block Russian missiles.
She showed the US’s most powerful legislators stark images of the toll of Russian bombardment of cities on Ukraine’s children – a blood-splattered baby stroller, a small crumpled body.
For Zelenska, wife of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the appearance capped a week in Washington, DC, that marked some of her highest-profile appearances of the five-month war. The visit was also one of the first times most Americans have laid eyes on her.
“We want no more air strikes. No more missile strikes,” Zelenska told Republicans and Democrats Wednesday, as an overhead screen displayed the war’s youngest victims. “Is this too much to ask for?”
Zelenska, speaking to an audience that included House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, appeared in the same congressional auditorium where her husband drew standing ovations from politicians three weeks into Russia’s invasion. Her husband had spoken by video.
Zelenskyy has won praise from supporters for staying in Kyiv since Russia attacked, speaking nightly by video address. Zelenska and the couple’s two children, meanwhile, went into hiding away from Zelenskyy for security reasons over the first two months of the war.
Zelenska worked as a scriptwriter for her husband, a comedian and actor before he won the presidency in 2019. They married in 2003.
Speaking to Vogue magazine the same year her husband was elected, Zelenska said she, by nature, was no teller of jokes and “a non-public person”.
But as first lady, “I found for myself arguments in favour of publicity. One of them is the opportunity to draw people’s attention to important social issues,” Zelenska said then.
A visit by Jill Biden to western Ukraine in May, when the two first ladies spoke privately and sat alongside displaced children living at a school, marked the start of Zelenska’s emergence from her wartime seclusion. Ukrainian officials said it was Jill Biden who invited Zelenska to come to the US capital.
The Ukrainian first lady in Washington, DC, has spoken – largely away from reporters – with Jill Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken, US Agency for International Development head Samantha Power and others.
She received a blue and yellow bouquet of sunflowers and hydrangea from President Joe Biden on arrival at the White House for her meeting with the US first lady.
Until Wednesday’s appearance before legislators, accounts of Zelenska’s conversations with US officials this week focused on the need for mental health care for Ukrainians dealing with the trauma of the war, and a US offer of rehabilitation assistance for children who have lost limbs in the war – humanitarian causes, not strategic or tactical.
But Zelenska also noted in a tweet she had talked with Vice President Kamala Harris’s husband, Doug Emhoff, at the White House Tuesday on how “to turn the ‘soft’ power of the first spouses into a powerful and effective tool”.
Her blunt description to lawmakers of the deaths of children turned that soft power into a forceful instrument.
She showed photographs of a smiling, paint-smeared four-year-old girl, Liza Dmitrieva, whom the first lady had happened to meet before Christmas.
The screen next showed an overturned baby carriage with blood caking on the sidewalk beneath it, after an air raid killed the girl and badly injured her mother last week.
“Our family represents the whole world for us, and we do everything to preserve it,” Zelenska said. “We cry when we cannot save it. And we remain completely broken when our world is destroyed by war.”
Another photo showed a girl in a pink headband, shot by Russian soldiers with her family as they tried to flee, and who screamed and cried for two hours in their car before dying herself, Zelenska said.
Another showed three generations – grandmother, mother, baby daughter – killed by a Russian air raid in the port city of Odesa, Zelenska told legislators. Yet another showed a three-year-old boy learning how to use a prosthetic limb after another air attack.
Zelenska noted in passing on Wednesday the humanitarian needs of the war.
“Maybe you expected from me to speak on those topics,” she told legislators, through an interpreter. “But how can I talk on all that when an unprovoked war is being waged on our country?”
Politicians and others gave her standing ovations before her speech. But the photos on the screen had some shaking their heads at the scenes. The unsparing account and her direct appeal to legislators for more arms, especially more air defence systems, echoed her husband’s calls throughout the war for more weapons from the US and other allies.
The daily hammering on the US for more support has been effective, but as the war grinds on could risk resentment from government leaders who, as of the start of June, have committed $4.6bn in security assistance for Ukraine.
“We’ve seen from Ukrainian leadership their courage but also their no-nonsense direct appeal and laying out the brutal mentality of Mr Putin,” Senator Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, said as legislators walked out.
Pelosi spoke before Zelenska’s address to describe US legislators as “strong supporters of the Ukrainian people and admirers” of Zelenskyy’s and Zelenska’s leadership.