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Zelensky pleads with U.S. lawmakers for help with air war against Russia

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has been speaking to various demonstrators via Zoom, including this gathering in Prague on March 4. (Michal Cizek/AFP/Getty Images)
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed directly to U.S. lawmakers Saturday to ask for additional help in fending off Russia’s invasion, including by helping him secure more Soviet-era fighter jets to counter Russian air raids.

During a call over Zoom attended by more than 280 members of the U.S. Senate and House, Zelensky described “the urgent need” for more military support and humanitarian aid, as well as for a worldwide ban on the purchase of Russian oil, according to statements and people on the call who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was private.

The call came after the Biden administration on Thursday requested $10 billion in aid for Ukraine, a move that appears to have bipartisan support but could get mired in other funding fights. Zelensky stopped short of using the words “no-fly zone,” according to those on the call, instead pressing on the urgency of “control of the skies” to combat the Russian bombardment.

The message was “close the skies or give us planes,” Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.) said in a statement after the call, which lasted just under an hour.

On March 5, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that harsh international sanctions against Russia were like a ‘declaration of war.’ (Video: Joy Yi/The Washington Post)

A no-fly zone in Ukraine enforced by NATO warplanes is widely regarded as a risky escalation, and Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Saturday that such a step would be regarded as an act of war.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg this week again ruled out sending NATO planes into Ukrainian airspace to shoot down Russian jets.

Facing this well-known reluctance, Zelensky asked U.S. lawmakers for help with another way to limit the damage from Russia’s devastating aerial raids: more planes for Ukraine.

“His main ask was for the U.S. to allow Poland and Romania to transfer Soviet era jets to #Ukraine, and for the U.S. to compensate by giving more advanced planes to those two NATO allies,” Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Calif.) said in a Twitter post.

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement that he would help the Biden administration with granting what he called Zelensky’s “desperate plea” for Eastern European countries to provide Russian-made planes.

Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) in a tweet called on NATO to “immediately facilitate the transfer of fighter aircraft from Poland, Romania, and Slovakia to Ukraine.” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) also wrote on Twitter that the United States and NATO should back Zelensky’s ask for jets.

At one point, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) asked about missiles, in an apparent reference to the Stinger ground-to-air weapons that the United States is continuing to supply to Ukraine, according to two people on the call.

Zelensky quickly retorted that missiles were not enough; Ukraine needs planes, he said.

What to know about Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine's president

The Ukrainian air force uses mostly old Soviet-era jets, including the MiG-29 fighter, and former Warsaw Pact states that have since joined NATO, such as Poland and Romania, operate similar models that Ukrainian pilots could fly without much additional training.

But supplying Ukraine with fighter jets, even those with outdated technology, would represent a major step up from the military support currently coming from the United States and NATO, which has involved mostly providing small arms and portable missile systems.

It would also leave the donor countries with gaps in their own air defenses, which could necessitate NATO allies backfilling those forces with costly modern jets that would require significant pilot retraining.

Members of Congress will be motivated to support Zelensky’s calls to action when they return to Washington on Monday, Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.) said in an interview on Saturday afternoon on “The Situation Room With Wolf Blitzer” on CNN.

“I imagine there’s any number of things we can do to turn up the pressure further on Russia,” Himes said. “I imagine the question of freeing up the bureaucracy to allow those Eastern European countries that have the planes that Zelensky’s pilots can fly will be first on the agenda.”

Zelensky spoke to the lawmakers from a desk and chair in a well-lit room, with the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag behind him — a change from some recent interviews in which the president appeared to be in a dark underground bunker.

But the security threats remained, and Ukraine’s ambassador asked the U.S. lawmakers not to share details of the meeting on social media until it was over, according to a Twitter post after the meeting from Rep. Dean Phillips (D-Minn.). Phillips slammed two senators — Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) — for sharing screenshots of the Zoom call while it was still going on.

Rubio spokesman Dan Holler said in a statement that the senator’s Twitter post contained “no identifying information” and dismissed anyone calling it a security concern as “a partisan seeking clicks.”

Zelensky also emphasized that cutting off purchases of Russian oil and gas worldwide could be a sanction “even more powerful than SWIFT,” according to a Twitter post from Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska). Zelensky was referring to the critical interbank financial messaging system from which Russia was banned after the invasion.

Zelensky said such a ban was essential, people on the call said, as he made a case for isolating the Russian economy as thoroughly as possible, including shutting down the Visa and Mastercard payment networks there. Late Saturday, both companies said they would suspend operations in Russia.

“He pushed quite forcefully for an absolute, complete boycott,” said Rep. Daniel Kildee (D-Mich.). “He was forceful and quite effective.”

Ending U.S. purchases of Russian oil and gas appears to have growing bipartisan support — but it also threatens to cause more chaos in energy markets.

While Russian crude makes up only a fraction of the U.S. oil market, the move could cause prices at the pump to spike further. Already, U.S. gas prices are rising at the fastest pace on record, according to AAA. The average price of a gallon of unleaded gasoline stood at $3.84 on Friday.

The White House earlier this week said the United States and other nations would tap their strategic reserves to hold down oil prices.

As for Zelensky’s requests for military and humanitarian aid, Rep. Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) said lawmakers should approve them quickly.

“We must provide the Ukrainian people with the support they need in the face of this illegal invasion,” Quigley said.

Zelensky said at end of the meeting, “We are all one big army now. The Ukrainian people are the embodiment of unity for democracy for the whole world now,” according to a Twitter post from Rep. Andy Levin (D-Mich.).

Ukrainian officials have found a receptive audience in U.S. lawmakers since the Russian attack.

In a demonstration of congressional support for Ukraine, its ambassador to the United States, Oksana Markarova, attended President Biden’s State of the Union address Tuesday and received a standing ovation when the president pointed her out.

Ukrainian parliament member Oleksandra Ustinova also met with U.S. senators on Tuesday to push for more sanctions immediately if Ukraine is to resist Russian attacks.

Dan Lamothe and Pradnya Joshi contributed to this report.

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