Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the U.S. Congress by video to plead for support as his country is besieged by Russian forces at the U.S. Capitol on March 16, 2022 in Washington, DC. (Photo by J. Scott Applewhite-Pool/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Wednesday invoked the Pearl Harbor attacks ahead of World War II and the 9/11 terrorist attacks, while urging the United States to do more to stop the Russian war against his country.
During the speech, delivered virtually to members of Congress in an auditorium on Capitol Hill, Zelenskyy drew a comparison between attacks on the United States and on his democracy and called on the U.S. to institute a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
He’s made the request several times before, but so far American leaders have been reluctant to grant it, citing concerns that American or NATO military pilots enforcing such a restriction on Russian warplanes would lead to a direct confrontation, significantly broadening the war.
“Today, the Ukrainian people are defending not only Ukraine, we are fighting for the values of Europe and the world, sacrificing our lives in the name of the future,” he said.
Zelenskyy began the 18-minute speech speaking Ukrainian, with a translator conveying his message in English. But he transitioned to speaking in English toward the end of the address after playing a two-minute video.
The deeply emotional video first showed peaceful scenes of Ukrainians leading their lives ahead of the war. It then transitioned to gruesome scenes of war, including bodies being added to a mass grave, images of people being treated in a hospital and several scenes of children crying as they evacuated. The video ended with the words “close the sky over Ukraine.”
Maine Sen. Angus King told reporters afterward there was a “collective holding of the breath” in the room and “the fact that he concluded his speech in English was a very powerful moment.”
Biden announces more military aid
Several hours after the address, President Joe Biden announced $800 million in additional U.S. military assistance to Ukraine, saying that he listened to Zelenskyy’s “convincing” speech from the White House private residence.
“He speaks for people who have shown remarkable courage and strength in the face of brutal aggression — courage and strength that’s inspired not only Ukrainians, but the entire world,” Biden said.
Despite Democrats and Republicans alike commending Zelenskyy for his speech and his actions in Ukraine, it wasn’t immediately clear if the United States would shift its stance on the no-fly zone.
White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Tuesday that the administration “continues to believe that a no-fly zone would be escalatory, could prompt a war with Russia.”
“I don’t believe there’s a lot of advocates calling for that at this point in time from Capitol Hill, but we certainly understand and recognize that is still a call from President Zelenskyy,” Psaki continued.
Zelenskyy on Wednesday said that if a no-fly zone was “too much to ask for,” the United States should supply Ukraine with the S-300 missile system, airplanes and other weapons to help Ukrainians defend themselves from Russian attacks.
Using the words of the “I Have a Dream” speech by Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Zelenskyy said: “I have a dream. These words are known to each of you. Today, I can say I have a need. I need to protect our sky. I need your decision, your help, which means exactly the same, the same you feel when you hear the words ‘I have a dream.’”
Zelenskyy closed out the speech speaking directly to Biden, even though Biden was not present for the virtual address.
“As the leader of my nation, I’m addressing President Biden. You are the leader of the nation, of your great nation. I wish you to be the leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace. Thank you. Slava Ukraini.”
The words mean, “Glory to Ukraine.”
Biden said during his speech that “at the request of President Zelenskyy” the U.S. has “identified and are helping Ukraine acquire additional longer-range, anti-aircraft systems and munitions for those systems.”
Biden also announced the U.S. would send the Ukrainian military 9,000 anti-armor systems, including “shoulder mounted missiles that Ukrainian forces have been using with great effect to destroy invading tanks and armored vehicles”; 7,000 small arms, including grenade launchers and machine guns; and 800 anti-aircraft systems “to make sure the Ukrainian military can continue to stop the planes and helicopters that have been attacking their people and to defend their Ukrainian airspace”; and drones, which demonstrates America’s “commitment to sending our most cutting-edge systems to Ukraine for its defense.”
The United States and allied democracies, Biden said, would continue to send Ukraine more weapons and assistance in the future.
“I want to be honest with you, this could be a long and difficult battle. But the American people will be steadfast in our support of the people of Ukraine,” Biden said.
Zelenskyy’s remarks had barely ended by the time lawmakers began reacting on Twitter. Members of both parties said they were moved by Zelenskyy’s speech and the video, and pledged to help Ukraine fight the war.
Many were nonspecific about how the United States should aid Ukraine.
“I was moved by the remarks of President Zelenskyy this morning,” Virginia Democrat and Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman Mark Warner tweeted. “Virginia stands with Ukraine as they navigate the terror of this senseless invasion.”
Others called for more targeted actions, including providing the military tools Zelenskyy requested.
“The Biden administration must respond with more lethal assistance, including the airplanes, anti-air weapons, and tightened sanctions immediately,” Sen. Rob Portman, an Ohio Republican who co-chairs the Senate Ukraine Caucus, tweeted. “If they won’t, then Congress must again act in a bipartisan way with more help.”
“We need to do everything possible to #StandWithUkraine,” Arizona’s U.S. Rep. Ruben Gallego, a Democrat, said. “We can only avoid using troops if we are willing to arm them to the teeth with every conventional weapon available. We need to again be the Arsenal of Democracy.”
“@ZelenskyyUa is David taking on Goliath, but he needs more than slingshots,” Rep. Brian Mast, R-Fla., posted, using Zelenskyy’s Twitter handle. “The Biden Administration should move immediately to provide him and the Ukrainian people with the necessary equipment to defend their country.”
His fellow Florida Republican, Michael Waltz, was more succinct.
“Send the damn MiGs,” Waltz wrote, referring to a type of fighter jet.
Another Florida Republican, Sen. Rick Scott, called for sending planes and adding economic deterrents.
“We must give @Ukraine the planes they need to fight, stop Russian trade & implement the most severe sanctions on ALL Russian politicians to cut off these tyrants,” Scott said.
Some members also named Russian President Vladimir Putin as the aggressor.
“This morning, President Zelenskyy addressed Congress to update us on Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked and evil attack on innocent Ukrainians,” Kansas Republican Rep. Jake LaTurner tweeted. “I appreciate his leadership & willingness to stand up and fight for freedom.”
Noting she was moved by Zelenskyy’s courage, Sen. Debbie Stabenow lauded recent efforts to provide humanitarian and military aid to Ukraine, as well as the administration’s sanctions.
“President Biden and Congress must continue to do everything we can to help them defend their people and their democracy,” the Michigan Democrat said. “That includes the billions in essential aid just passed in the recent appropriations bill for military assistance to strengthen Ukraine’s air defense capabilities and critical humanitarian assistance. And it includes continuing to hit Putin and his oligarchs where they feel it most — in their bank accounts.”
Although there was a bipartisan consensus that the U.S. should provide more aid to Ukraine, partisan bickering continued.
Some Republican members blamed Biden for not acting fast enough.
“Russia invading Ukraine shouldn’t surprise the Biden-Harris administration,” Florida Republican Rep. Byron Donalds said. “Anyone who was paying attention saw this coming. Unfortunately, Biden is leading from behind, which has worsened the situation. We need to accelerate more support for Ukraine, starting with MiGs.”
Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Maryland Democrat, said House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy targeted the wrong world leader in remarks following Zelenskyy’s address.
“Leaving President Zelenskyy’s speech was sickening to hear GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy attacking, not Putin, but” Biden, Van Hollen said on Twitter. “Somebody needs to tell him who the real enemy is & to stop playing politics with the defense of freedom in Ukraine. We’re all in this together.”
McCarthy, of California, told reporters he’d advised Biden to provide weapons to Ukraine and implement economic sanctions earlier.
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