Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a historic, virtual address to Congress on Wednesday, pleading with the U.S. to help stop Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and calling out President Joe Biden by name in English, saying “being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced the Ukrainian president and led members in chanting, “Slava Ukraini” or “Glory to Ukraine.”
“Glory to heroes,” Zelenskyy responded. “Thank you very much, Madame Speaker, Members of the Congress, ladies and gentlemen, Americans, friends, I’m proud to greet you from Ukraine from our capital city of Kyiv, a city that is under missile and airstrikes from Russian troops every day, but it doesn’t give up — and we have not even thought about it for a second,” he said.
In the emotional appeal, Zelenskyy asked Americans to put themselves in the shoes of Ukrainians by remembering Pearl Harbor “when your sky was black from the planes attacking you” and the Sept. 11 attacks, saying that “every day now for three weeks” Ukraine has seen death.
“Remember September the 11th, a terrible day in 2001 when evil tried to turn your cities, independent territories on battlefields, when innocent people were attacked from air, yes, just like no one else expected it, you could not stop it,” he said. “Our country experiences the same thing every day, right now at this moment, every night for three weeks now various Ukrainian cities — Mariupol and Kharkiv — Russia has turned the Ukrainian skies into a source of death for thousands of people.”
He also invoked American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech in his appeal, catering to an American audience.
“‘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,” he said. “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 described the horrors at home as a terror not seen in Europe for 80 years and went on to play a three-minute video of the violence and bloodshed in Ukraine over the past three weeks, including images of dying children, with a message to “close the skies over Ukraine.”
“Is this a lot to ask for to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people? Is this too much to ask?” Zelenskyy said. “Humanitarian no-fly zone, something that Ukraine, that Russia would not be able to terrorize our free cities.”
“If this is too much to ask, we offer an alternative. You know what kind of defense systems we need, S-300 and other systems,” he continued, referring to a Soviet-era surface-to-air missile system that can defend against cruise missiles and aircraft attacks.
Zelenskyy closed his brief but extraordinary address by speaking directly to Biden — in English.
“I’m addressing to President Biden: you are the leader of the nation, of your brave nation. I wish you to be the leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace,” Zelenskyy said. “Thank you. Slava Ukraini.”
On Tuesday, the White House said Biden would try to watch Zelenskyy’s address to the degree his schedule allows and he will give an address of his own afterward, detailing what the U.S. is doing for “Ukrainian security assistance.”
He gave something of a preemptive response in remarks to reporters on Tuesday while signing a $1.5 trillion government funding bill, which includes $13.6 billion in supplemental aid to Ukraine.
“We’ve been providing anti-armor — taking out tanks, anti-air capabilities, directly — directly to the Ukrainian forces. And we’re also facilitating significant shipments of security assistance from our Allied partners to Ukraine,” Biden said. “With this new security funding … we’re moving urgently to further augment the support to the brave people of Ukraine as they defend their country.”
While the U.S. has imposed a slate of economic and trade sanctions to isolate Putin, the Biden administration has flatly and repeatedly rejected a no-fly zone, as well as U.S. troops fighting Russia in Ukraine and any help delivering MiG-29 fighter jets that Poland wants to get to the Ukrainians. It’s also unclear whether Congress might try to move to act unilaterally if the White House doesn’t take more action.
Pleas for a no-fly zone
Given Zelenskyy’s pleas, Psaki was pressed Tuesday on how the administration planned to deal with the likely request for measures such as closing the airspace above Ukraine.
“I would say that without knowing what he’s going to say tomorrow, we certainly are familiar with what the asks have been. We have provided our own assessment of what does make sense and doesn’t make sense,” Psaki said, noting the additional funding to Ukraine Biden was signing.
Another reporter followed up, “Is Zelenskyy wasting his time tomorrow asking for these things?”
“Because of the passion and the courage and the bravery of President Zelenskyy, there has been support for expediting the delivery of a historic amount of military and security assistance and weapons that have helped him and his military fight back against the Russians,” Psaki said. “And I would say that, yes, we recognize there are a range of bipartisan calls, but what we have the responsibility to do here is to assess what the impact is on the United States and our own national security.”
Psaki added that a no-fly zone “essentially means us shooting down Russian planes, and them potentially shooting back at us.”
Top Republicans on Tuesday called on Biden to quickly provide more lethal aid to Ukraine and to reconsider the decision not to facilitate the transfer of MiG-29 fighter jets from Poland to Ukraine.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell accused the administration on Tuesday of “dragging its heels” in getting aid to Ukraine.
Asked how lawmakers might navigate having to deny Zelenskyy some of the security measures he may request of them, McConnell indicated he would agree to what Zelenskyy is asking, aside from imposing a no-fly zone.
“My guess is that everything he is going to request is something we ought to be doing, and so my individual response to that would be yes,” McConnell said. “The administration needs to get the message they need to help the Ukrainians in every conceivable way we need to do it, and we need to do it right now — not only us but our NATO allies — who seem to be way more anxious than this administration to help the Ukrainians.”
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called the invitation to Zelenskyy to speak to Congress “one of the highest honors” bestowed by the body on a foreign head of state.
“We have all been inspired by the courage of President Zelenskyy and that of the Ukrainian people. President Zelenskyy can rest assured that he will always have friends in Congress ready to listen to stand in his corner, and we’re honored to have him speak to us later this week,” he said on the Senate floor Monday.
Outside the auditorium on Wednesday ahead of the address, congressional aides were seen handing out pins with the Ukrainian and American flags crossed for members to wear inside.
As he continues his appeals to the West, Zelenskyy last week also became the first foreign leader to virtually address Britain’s House of Commons and echoed Winston Churchill’s famous June 1940 speech after Allied forces pulled off the “miracle of Dunkirk.”
“We will not give up, and we will not lose. We will fight till the end — at sea, in the air, we will continue fighting for our land whatever the cost. We will fight in the forests, in the fields, on the shores, in the streets,” he said, met, again, with a standing ovation.