Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has asked the United States Congress for a no-fly zone and more sanctions in his latest public appeal for help as Russians continue their invasion that has killed thousands and pushed more than three million refugees into Eastern Europe.
“We need you right now. I call on you to do more,” Zelenskyy said on Wednesday, addressing the US Congress by video from Kyiv.
Zelenskyy thanked the US for the aid it has already provided and praised President Joe Biden for “his personal involvement for his sincere commitment to the defence of Ukraine and democracy all over the world”.
Biden has approved $13.6bn in military and financial support for Ukraine, but not the military jets and no-fly zone that Zelenskyy has been calling for. The White House has said those actions would be seen as a military escalation and the US does not want to be drawn into the war.
“If this is too much to ask,” the Ukrainian leader said of the no-fly zone, “we offer an alternative. You know what kind of defence systems we need.”
Later on Wednesday, Biden announced the US would provide an additional $800m in security assistance to Ukraine to help the country defend against Russia’s invasion.
The package includes 800 anti-aircraft systems “to stop the planes and helicopters” firing on the Ukrainian people, Biden told reporters, as well as thousands of shoulder-mounted missiles, machine guns, grenade launchers, and other equipment, including drones.
“This could be a long and difficult battle, but the American people will be steadfast in our support for the people of Ukraine in the face of Putin’s immoral, unethical attacks on civilian populations,” Biden said. “We’re going to give Ukraine the arms to fight and defend themselves through all the difficult days ahead.”
In his address to Congress, Zelenskyy also had urged US lawmakers to broaden the economic and political sanctions the US has imposed on Russia.
He asked that the US sanction all Russian politicians who do not cut ties with those responsible for the aggression in Ukraine and close all its ports to Russian goods. He also urged US companies to leave the Russian market “because it is flooded with our blood”.
The Ukrainian president’s appearance before the US Congress followed ones before the British House of Commons and the Parliament of Canada, where he made similar appeals for more military support and a no-fly zone.
Zelenskyy spoke to the US legislators in terms that resonate deeply for Americans, invoking the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the US into World War II and the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks “from the sky” that triggered the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.
The Ukrainian leader recalled the words of the slain US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr, who said “I have a dream”; and he played a video for legislators that showed the past three weeks of the war in Ukraine, including dead bodies on streets, buildings being bombed, mass graves and refugees fleeing.
He concluded with a simple plea: “Close the skies.”
US legislators gave Zelenskyy standing ovations at the beginning and end of his remarks. Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican, praised Zelenskyy after the speech, saying the US needs to provide more military aid.
“What Zelenskyy asked President Biden and the United States Congress to do is answer whether we have the courage of our convictions,” Sasse said. “Zelenskyy needs to win. The Ukrainian freedom fighters need to win. We don’t need them just to lose more slowly. We need them to win and to win they need to kill Russians, and to kill Russians, they need more weapons.”
Support is building among legislators from both major US parties, Democrats and Republicans, to provide Ukraine with more weapons, as congressional aides say constituents are calling Congress members to respond to the images of death and destruction being wrought by the Russian attack.
“If you ask for a no-fly zone, you might get things less than a no-fly zone, because people feel guilty that they can’t provide it, will instead provide other things such as economic aid, humanitarian aid, and defensive weapons,” said Peter Harris, an associate professor at Colorado State University and a fellow at Defense Priorities, a US-based think-tank.
“He’s fighting for the survival of Ukraine as a state. The future of Ukraine hangs in the balance. So from his perspective, it may be rational to want NATO to declare war on Russia,” Harris said.
US officials are considering providing Ukraine with small, portable remote-controlled “switchblade” drones that can be used to attack Russian ground troops and armour from stand-off positions, various US news outlets reported.
“This would be a capability that the Ukrainians themselves on the ground in Ukraine would be able to leverage for their own defence and to use as a significant advantage against the Russian army,” Representative Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat, told MSNBC on Wednesday.
Before the invasion, US military aid to Ukraine included anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons as well as transport helicopters, drones, patrol boats, vehicles and communications equipment. “It’s clearly helped Ukraine inflict dramatic losses on Russian forces,” Biden said during the news conference.
The US president will travel to Europe next week for face-to-face talks with European leaders about the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
He will attend a NATO summit in Brussels on March 24 and a European Union summit the same day for discussions on further sanctions on Russia and humanitarian efforts to help Ukraine.