Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addressed Congress Wednesday morning, invoking the Sept. 11 attacks and Pearl Harbor as he called on the United States to “do more.”
“Right now the destiny of our country is being decided,” he said through an interpreter, adding, “Russia has attacked not just us, not just our land, not just our cities, it went on a brutal offensive against our values, basic human values.”
Zelenskyy received a warm welcome as he addressed lawmakers virtually, saying that he was grateful for all the assistance from the United States but that more was needed to push back Russia.
“Ladies and gentlemen, friends, Americans, in your great history, you have pages that would allow you to understand Ukrainians — understand us now, when we need you right now,” he told lawmakers. “Remember Pearl Harbor, the terrible morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when your sky was black from the planes attacking you. Remember Sept. 11, a terrible day in 2001 when evil tried to turn your cities, independent territories, into battlefields. When innocent people were attacked from air.”
“Our country experiences the same every day, right now, at this moment, every night for three weeks now,” he added.
Zelenskyy reiterated his request for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, although he acknowledged that the United States was unlikely to go that far. So he followed that ask for other types of assistance, both humanitarian and military, while saying he was extremely grateful for all the aid the U.S. government has already provided.
“If this is too much to ask, we offer an alternative,” he went on, requesting other assistance to fight Russia, including S-300 missile systems.
Establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine ― which Zelenskyy has requested before ― would potentially be a major escalation of the conflict, requiring U.S. and NATO to shoot down Russian aircraft.
White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki has said the president “continues to believe that a no-fly zone would be escalatory.” Biden has also repeatedly said he does not want to put U.S. troops on the ground in Ukraine or do anything that could lead to World War III with Russia, another nuclear power.
Congress has passed nearly $14 billion in humanitarian and military assistance to Ukraine so far. President Joe Biden over the weekend approved $200 million in security assistance for Ukraine and is expected to announce later on Wednesday an additional $800 million, bringing the total security aid provided to the country since Biden took office to $2 billion.
Zelenskyy repeatedly turned to U.S. ideals and history to make his case, invoking both Mount Rushmore and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at times.
“I have a dream. These words are known to each of you,” he said. “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.’”
In his speech Wednesday, Zelenskyy also criticized the current governing bodies of the world, saying they were failing and that what was needed was a “union of responsible countries” that can stop conflicts immediately.
At one point, Zelenskyy played a graphic video showing Ukrainian cities both before and after Vladimir Putin’s invasion, in happy times and then full of destruction with injured children and people crying as they try to escape the carnage.
At the end of his speech, Zelenskyy appealed directly to President Joe Biden: “You are the leader of your great nation. I wish you to be leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means being the leader of peace.”
He received a standing ovation after his remarks.
After the speech, lawmakers focused on Zelenskyy’s call for other types of assistance, brushing aside the no-fly zone and making clear that there’s little support on either side of the aisle for such a move.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) called the request for a no-fly zone “compelling” but added, “I think every one of us are deeply concerned about this spiraling into all-out war.”
“The point of the no-fly zone request is to make us feel guilty that we can’t do the no-fly zone, so that we work even harder on everything that we can do. It’s brilliant. It’s exactly what he should be doing. It’s effective,” Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.) said.
Republicans have seized on Poland’s offer of MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine as a way to criticize Biden’s handling of the situation, even though the Pentagon said the transfer of such planes would be logistically problematic and risk escalating the war. (The United States would then have sent Poland, a NATO ally, replacement F-16s.)
“The idea that we’re going to send in offensive equipment and have planes and tanks and trains going in with American pilots and American crews — just understand, don’t kid yourself, no matter what y’all say, that’s called World War III,” Biden told a gathering of House Democrats last week.
“I think right now, providing the MiGs, they can create a no-fly zone,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said. “He’s never asked for American men or women to be in a battle, all he’s ever asked for is, ‘Give us the opportunity to defend ourselves. Don’t let us fight with sticks.’”
“The longer President Biden waits trying to figure out excuses to not offend Putin, it’s costing lives in Ukraine,” Rep. Steve Scalise (La.), the No. 2 House Republican, told reporters after Wednesday’s speech.
Zelenskyy speaks to Biden almost daily by phone, and about two weeks ago, he also had a call with lawmakers during which he asked for more assistance.