WASHINGTON — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky cited Pearl Harbor and the terror attacks of September 11, 2001, on Wednesday as he appealed to US Congress to do more to help Ukraine’s fight against Russia, but he acknowledged the no-fly zone he has sought to “close the sky” over his country may not happen.
Livestreamed into the Capitol complex, Zelensky said the US must sanction Russian lawmakers and block imports, and he showed a packed auditorium of lawmakers an emotional video of the destruction and devastation his country has suffered in the war.
“We need you right now,” Zelensky said, adding, “I call on you to do more.”
In urging a steeper economic hit to the Russians, he said: “Peace is more important than income.”
Lawmakers gave him a standing ovation, before and after his short remarks, which Zelensky began in Ukrainian through an interpreter but then switched to English in a heartfelt appeal to help end the bloodshed.
“I see no sense in life if it cannot stop the deaths,” he told them.
Zelensky’s livestreamed address to the US Capitol was among the most important elements in a very public strategy in which he has invoked Winston Churchill, Hamlet and the power of world opinion in his fight to stop Russia.
“Slava Ukraina,” or glory to Ukraine, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said, as lawmakers gathered in a joint session stood and clapped enthusiastically for Zelensky, appearing by videolink from the besieged capital Kyiv.
The president opened his speech by invoking painful moments in US history to reflect his country’s current struggle against Russia.
“Remember Pearl Harbor, the terrible morning of December 7, 1941, when your sky was black from the planes attacking you,” he said, recalling the air raid that brought the United States into World War II.
“Remember September the 11th, a terrible day in 2001 when evil tried to turn your cities, independent territories, into battlefields. Our country experienced the same every day,” he said.
After quoting Martin Luther King’s famous “I had a dream,” he said: “I have a need, the need to protect our sky. I need your decision, your help.”
“Is this too much to ask, to create a no fly zone over Ukraine?” he asked, answering his own question. “If this is too much to ask, we offer an alternative,” calling for weapons systems that would help fight Russian aircraft.
“You know what kind of defense systems we need, you know how much depends on the battlefield, on the ability to use powerful strong aviation to protect our people our freedom our land,” he said.
“Aircraft that can help Ukraine, help Europe,” he went on. “And you know that they exist and you have them, but they are on earth and not in the Ukrainian sky.
The Biden administration has sent Ukraine more than 600 Stinger missiles, 2,600 Javelin anti-armor systems, unmanned aerial system tracking radars; grenade launchers, 200 shotguns, 200 machine guns and nearly 40 million rounds of small arms ammunition, along with helicopters, patrol boats, satellite imagery and body armor, helmets, and other tactical gear.
US lawmakers were then shown a moving video of the destruction caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
As somber music played in the background, the short video showed ruined buildings and injured civilians including children, with the final frame showing the words “close the sky” in an appeal for a no-fly zone.
“I am 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,” Zelensky said, switching to English for the final passage of his speech.
“Peace for your country no longer depends just on your country, it also depends on those next to you,” Zelensky continued. “Today the Ukrainian people are not only defending Ukraine, we are fighting for the values of Europe.”
“Biden, you are the leader of your great nation. I wish for you to be the leader of the world, which means to be the leader of peace,” he added.
Nearing the three-week mark in an ever-escalating war, Zelensky has used his campaign to implore allied leaders to “close the sky” to prevent the Russian airstrikes that are devastating his country. It has also put Zelensky at odds with US President Joe Biden, whose administration has stopped short of providing a no-fly zone or the transfer of military jets from neighboring Poland as the US seeks to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia.
Western leaders have explained that if a no-fly zone were declared, militaries would be obliged to engage Russians in combat for violating it, which could quickly deteriorate into all-out war between Russia and multiple nations.
Biden was to deliver his own address following Zelensky’s speech, in which he was expected to announce an additional $800 million in security assistance to Ukraine, according to a White House official. That would bring the total announced in the last week alone to $1 billion. It includes money for anti-armor and air-defense weapons, according to the official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Appearing in his now-trademark army green T-shirt as he appeals to world leaders, Zelensky has emerged as a heroic figure at the center of what many view as the biggest security threat to Europe since World War II. Three million refugees have fled Ukraine, the fastest exodus in modern times.
The Ukrainian president is no stranger to Congress, having played a central role in Donald Trump’s first impeachment. As president, Trump was accused of withholding security aid to Ukraine as he pressured Zelensky to dig up dirt on political rival Biden. Zelensky will be speaking to many of the same Republican lawmakers who declined to impeach or convict Trump, but are among the bipartisan groundswell in Congress now clamoring for military aid to Ukraine.
Invoking Shakespeare’s hero last week, Zelensky asked the British House of Commons whether Ukraine is “to be or not to be.” On Tuesday, he appealed to “Dear Justin” as he addressed the Canadian Parliament and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Zelensky called on European Union leaders at the start of the war to do the politically unthinkable and fast-track Ukraine’s membership — and he has continued to push for more help to save his young democracy than world leaders have so far pledged to do.
Biden has insisted there will be no US troops on the ground in Ukraine and has resisted Zelensky’s relentless pleas for warplanes as too risky, potentially escalating into a direct confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia.
“Direct conflict between NATO and Russia is World War III,” Biden has said.
US defense officials say they are puzzled by Zelensky’s demand for more warplanes. They say Ukraine isn’t often flying the planes it has now, while making good use of other weapons the West is providing, including Stinger missiles for shooting down helicopters and other aircraft.
While officials are anticipating that Zelensky may again call on the US and the West for fighter jets or help establishing a no-fly zone, the Biden administration is looking to send Ukraine “more of what’s been working well,” according to an official who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.
Already the Biden administration has sent Ukraine more than 600 Stinger missiles, 2,600 Javelin anti-armor systems, unmanned aerial system tracking radars; grenade launchers, 200 shotguns, 200 machine guns and nearly 40 million rounds of small arms ammunition, along with helicopters, patrol boats, satellite imagery and body armor, helmets, and other tactical gear, the official said.
Even though Zelensky and Biden speak almost daily by phone, the Ukrainian president has found a potentially more receptive audience in Congress.
This won’t be the first time he has appealed directly to members of the House and Senate, who have remained remarkably unified in their support of Ukraine. Nearly two weeks ago, Zelensky delivered a desperate plea to some 300 lawmakers and staff on a private call asking them, if they could not enforce a no-fly zone, to at least send more planes.
“We think the United States needs to do more,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, Republican of Mississippi, returning from a weekend visit with other lawmakers to Poland.
Congress has already approved $13.6 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine, and the newly announced security aid will come from that allotment, which is part of a broader bill that Biden signed into law Tuesday. But lawmakers expect more aid will be needed.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Zelensky asked for help in rebuilding his country when they spoke last week. It was in that call that Zelensky asked to address the US Congress, something the Democratic leader readily agreed to.
“The Congress, our country and the world are in awe of the people of Ukraine,” said Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in a statement Monday announcing the address.
They said Congress “remains unwavering in our commitment to supporting Ukraine as they face Putin’s cruel and diabolical aggression.”
Zelensky’s next stop could be Spain. The speaker of Spain’s Congress of Deputies has invited the Ukrainian president to address Spanish lawmakers via videolink.
In a letter to Zelensky, Speaker Meritxell Batet wrote that the address “will be a magnificent opportunity for the chamber, all Spanish people and the thousands of Ukrainians living in Spain to listen to your message and express our firmest support.”