World leaders visit Kyiv with big message for Vladimir Putin

First there was Volodymyr Zelensky’s provocative speech to the British Parliament on March 8. Deliberately echoing Winston Churchill, he vowed: “We will fight to the end, at sea, in the air. We will continue to fight for our land, whatever the cost. We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets.

Then, during a surprise visit to Kyiv on April 9, Prime Minister Boris Johnson marched with Ukraine’s president through the capital’s mostly empty streets flanked by armed soldiers. The message could not have been clearer: the two leaders will be no more intimidated by Russian bombs and rockets than Churchill was by Hitler’s lethal arsenal.

Johnson was far from the first European leader to offer such a show of solidarity in Kyiv. On March 15, the leaders of Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia traveled there together, and shortly before Johnson’s visit, Zelensky separately hosted the President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen and Austrian Chancellor Karl Nehammer.

Such ostentatious displays of a country’s commitment to its defence, reinforced by equally public proclamations of solidarity from its allies, play a crucial role in any major conflict. Especially since the odds seem to weigh against those who seek to stave off ruthless aggression. As another major Russian assault on the eastern Donbas region looms, the idea is to inspire heroic stories of resistance.

This is precisely what is happening now. But inevitably, such stories leave out parties that might cast doubt on the firmness and consistency of their resolution in conflicts where the outcomes are far from predetermined.

Churchill and his staunchest supporters were not immune to such doubts, something rarely mentioned in most accounts of his unquestionably heroic leadership. While conducting research for my book 1941: The year Germany lost the war, I was struck by several examples. They suggest a sense of vulnerability that Churchill carefully concealed from the public.

On May 10, 1940, King George VI summoned Churchill to Buckingham Palace. Despite his insistence that he had always believed in victory, Churchill’s behavior on this occasion told a different story. Hitler’s armies had just invaded France, prompting the resignation of Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, whose appeasement policy was now on full display as a disastrous failure.

When Churchill left the palace, his bodyguard, Detective Inspector WH Thompson of Scotland Yard, was waiting for him. “Do you know why I went to Buckingham Palace, Thompson? Churchill asked. The detective replied that he understood that the king had “finally” asked him to form a new government. “I only wish the job had come to you in better times, because you have undertaken a huge task,” he added.

Churchill had tears in his eyes as he replied, “God only knows how great that is. I hope it’s not too late. I’m afraid that’s the case. We can only do our best.

It was not the public Churchill who exuded unbridled confidence in victory; it was the very private Churchill who knew that defeat was quite possible. But there was nothing underhanded about his statements: they were the actions of a true leader. He knew he had to make his compatriots believe in victory if there was to be any chance of it happening. Whatever his personal doubts, Zelensky absorbed this lesson well, as did others in his government and military.

The same goes for Churchill’s staunchest supporters, some of whom cannot help but feel despair as the German blitzkrieg sweeps through France and later German planes bomb London and other British cities, inflicting huge civilian casualties.

Tory MP Harold Nicolson, who worked at the Ministry of Information in an attempt to boost morale, made a secret suicide pact with his wife Vita Sackville-West, a poet and novelist. He obtained poison pills which they pledged to use if they were about to be captured by German invaders. As Nicolson explained to Sackville-West in a letter, he did not fear this kind of “honorable death”; what he feared was “to be tortured and humiliated”.

Americans in Britain who supported Churchill worked hard to counter isolationist sentiment in the United States, which was still officially on the fringes of the war. Doomsayers like Joseph Kennedy, the outgoing US Ambassador, predicted Britain’s defeat. General Raymond E. Lee, the military attache at the London Embassy, ​​expected Hitler to ‘take on this country’ but insisted Britain would survive – and he worked hard to ensure a flow of American supplies to the country. Following the bombings, he also wanders freely around the city to survey the damage. “If there was ever a time when you had to wear life like a baggy garment, this is it,” he noted.

Like Churchill who also visited bombed-out cities, Lee knew that such displays of confidence inspire more confidence and courage inspires more courage. When allies like Lee, or now Boris Johnson, make a brief appearance alongside those at greatest risk, it’s more than just a token gesture. In the fight of wars, symbolism counts. And if maintaining the power of this symbolism requires suppressing private doubts, it is a price that anyone aspiring to true leadership must be prepared to pay. Although he really gauges his country’s chances, Zelensky has no doubts about it.

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