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Zelensky speech to Congress could add pressure on Biden

The Ukrainian president’s address to Congress on Wednesday is a big moment, and Zelensky is likely to make an emotional appeal for measures Biden does not want to take

The British Parliament gives Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky a standing ovation after he spoke to the House of Commons on March 8, 2022. (Jessica Taylor/AFP/Getty Images)
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President Biden has repeatedly rejected the idea of more air cover for Ukraine in its war with Russia, warning that sending Polish fighter jets to Ukraine — or enforcing a no-fly zone above it — could lead to a global conflagration with a nuclear-armed foe.

“That’s called ‘World War Three,'” Biden told Democratic lawmakers Friday.

Biden’s reluctance to provide Ukraine with some kinds of military assistance that the Eastern European country has requested will face its biggest and most emotional test Wednesday morning, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses Congress as part of a virtual tour of Western capitals this month.

Zelensky’s speech to U.S. lawmakers is expected to be equal parts beseeching and defiant, asking the Biden administration — as he has other Western allies — to “please close the sky” above Ukraine. The speech is also likely to provide an opening for Republicans, who have already begun criticizing Biden for being too cautious and weak in his handling of Russia’s aggression.

Zelenky has proved to be a capable and inspiring leader, with an ability to prompt outpourings of global support. And he has shown himself willing to simultaneously rally and shame world leaders who he believes are not offering sufficient support in Ukraine’s war with Russia.

“Can you blame him for that?” said Igor Novikov, a former Zelensky adviser. “He’s a collective portrait of the Ukrainian people, and the Ukrainian people are suffering greatly at the moment. And a lot of the horrific damage to our country and to the lives of our people could have been prevented — and can still be prevented — by closing down our airspace, by providing us with proper antiaircraft systems and by providing us with the necessary support.”

In a series of hopscotching video addresses to Western allies earlier this month, Zelensky offered a stream of what White House press secretary Jen Psaki described Tuesday as “very powerful” remarks, providing a likely preview of his speech to Congress on Wednesday.

Addressing European leaders at the beginning of the month, Zelensky’s appeal was so emotional that his English-language interpreter briefly choked up. A week later, when he addressed the British Parliament, Zelensky made a similarly moving pitch, echoing a refrain from an oration that British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered during World War II.

An interpreter for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky's speech to the European Parliament on March 1 broke down during the address. (Video: The Washington Post)

And a week after that, on Tuesday, Zelensky addressed Canada’s Parliament, calling on Canadians generally — and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau specifically — to support a no-fly zone over Ukraine and asking them to envision an unprovoked bombing attack on their own country.

“Imagine that someone is taking siege, laying siege, to Vancouver,” implored Zelensky, who received a nearly three-minute standing ovation from the Canadian lawmakers when he finished.

A senior Ukrainian official said he expected Zelensky to repeat the same calls for assistance Wednesday. And Novikov predicted Zelensky’s speech “will be emotionally charged.”

“It will be sincere and honest,” Novikov said. “He needs to first of all make sure support for us is both bipartisan and nonpartisan.”

Nearly a hundred children have died in the war that followed Russia's invasion of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky told Canadian lawmakers on March 15. (Video: Reuters)

Psaki, however, told reporters Tuesday that no matter how impassioned or poignant a speech Zelensky delivers to U.S. lawmakers, the Biden administration has no plans to accede to some of his larger demands, such as helping enforce a no-fly zone or providing his country with the fighter jets that Poland has offered send to a U.S. base for use in Ukraine.

Psaki invoked the military and security assistance the administration has already provided to Ukraine, before reiterating that Biden remains unwilling to take certain steps to defend Ukraine, notably those that could result in a direct clash between U.S. and Russian forces.

“The president has to look at decisions that are made through the prism of what is in our national security interests and global security interests, and he continues to believe that a no-fly zone would be escalatory — could prompt a war with Russia,” Psaki said.

A no-fly zone, she added later, “essentially means us shooting down Russian planes and them potentially shooting back at us.”

A senior White House official noted that the United States has already provided Ukraine with a range of security assistance over the past year, including over 600 Stinger antiaircraft systems, roughly 2,600 Javelin anti-armor systems, 200 grenade launchers and nearly 40 million rounds of small-arms ammunition, among other equipment. A second White House official added that Biden is expected to announce on Wednesday an additional $800 million in security assistance to Ukraine, bringing the total aid announced in the past week to $1 billion.

A senior adviser to Zelensky questioned Western presumptions that Russia would view a no-fly zone or providing Ukraine with fighter jets as an escalation over the lethal weapons that NATO member countries have already provided.

“Ukraine is fighting valiantly against all odds and prevailing. Ukraine is not afraid, and it’s hard to understand why NATO, which is a lot more powerful than Ukraine, is acting out of fear,” said the adviser, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly. “A strong response from Ukraine has stopped Putin in his tracks, and a strong response from NATO will end this conflict quickly.”

Zelensky’s speech Wednesday comes just days after Congress passed an aid package of nearly $13 billion for Ukraine, split between armaments and humanitarian aid. But lawmakers said they were ready and willing to hear Zelensky’s pleas for more assistance, including requests — such as a no-fly zone or the transfer of fighter jets from NATO countries — that Biden and his congressional allies have ruled out.

The question of additional transfers beyond the small arms, antitank weapons and short-range antiaircraft systems that the United States is already providing has emerged as a partisan fault line in Congress.

Some Republicans have begun battering Biden for not doing more to facilitate the transfer of Soviet-era MiG fighter jets belonging to some NATO countries that were formerly part of the Warsaw Pact. Those calls were amplified after Zelensky specifically asked for the jets in a March 5 teleconference with scores of lawmakers.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) kept up his drumbeat against what he called the administration’s “hesitancy and weakness” in a speech Tuesday.

“My guess is that everything he’s going to request is something we ought to be doing,” McConnell told reporters later, referring to Zelensky’s address. “And so my individual response to that would be ‘yes.’ Unfortunately, the administration keeps on dragging its heels. Even when they do the right thing, they do it too late.”

Other Republicans similarly expressed hope that Zelensky’s address might help erode the administration’s resistance, which is rooted in a concern that the limited tactical benefit of providing jets is far outweighed by the strategic risk of escalating Western involvement in the war.

“It’s been too little, too late, too slow, and hopefully if he puts the message out there, he will deliver it stronger,” said Sen. James E. Risch (R-Idaho), the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Though there has been little bipartisan support on Capitol Hill for a no-fly zone over Ukraine, some Republican lawmakers have called on Biden to help get the Polish MiG jets to Ukraine. In a letter Tuesday to the State and Defense departments, top Senate and House Republicans urged the administration “to provide a robust package of lethal and nonlethal aid to Ukraine based on assessed and anticipated military efficacy.”

Separately, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) is authoring a resolution urging the transfer of the Polish MiGs to Ukraine.

Senators of both parties have also shifted their arguments in recent days, as it has become clear that the Biden administration is not willing to play a role in delivering those jets. Some senators say the next-best alternative is to facilitate the transfer of Russian-built surface-to-air missile defense systems that are used by some NATO countries, as well as drones that have been effective against Russian armor. Some Biden allies argue that those systems — which include the S-300 batteries operated by several Western powers — could be more effective than the fighter jets.

Democrats say that while they are sympathetic to Zelensky’s requests, U.S. lawmakers need to focus on what is ultimately best for the security of the United States.

Several Democrats have argued that Zelensky’s most valuable role in addressing Congress is to detail the destruction and humanitarian crisis that Russia is visiting upon his nation and to rally the American public behind his fledgling democracy rather than lobbying for any particular assistance — especially assistance that Biden has already ruled out.

“He’s a heroic figure, and, for good reason, people are giving deference to him and people want to say yes to him,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.). “If I were Zelensky, I would ask for the moon. But it’s up to us to decide what is in our national security interest.”

Zelensky’s visit comes as leaders on Capitol Hill are hashing out their next legislative move targeting Russia, which is centered on a bill that would codify the Biden administration’s recent decision — made under congressional pressure — to ban imports of Russian oil and gas and to end Russia’s preferential trade status. The House could vote on a bill as soon as this week, with some lawmakers eyeing Senate passage sometime next week.

One lead negotiator, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), said Tuesday that there was “agreement on the broad principles” to be tackled in the bill but that some “fine tuning” remained.

Still, skepticism abounds that Congress might pass a bipartisan bill after infighting doomed an earlier effort to pass a sanctions package ahead of the Russian invasion last month. Several lawmakers said this week that they are hoping to attach additional provisions to the legislation — ranging from a Wyden effort to punish U.S. companies that continue doing business in Russia to a bipartisan proposal to seize the assets of Russian oligarchs to a renewal and expansion of the Magnitsky Act, which targets human rights offenders.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) said Tuesday that he favors keeping the bill focused on cementing the sanctions that Biden has already imposed, but he said there was clearly room for the United States to do more, both in aiding Ukraine’s air defense and in helping “close the economic noose on Putin’s neck.”

But he also said Zelensky is at his most effective when seeking to “prick the conscience” of his Western allies.

“He’s going to have to keep reminding not only us, but the rest of the world, of the realities of the brutality, the criminality and the human loss of life that Putin is putting upon his people,” Menendez said.

On Tuesday, reporters pressed Psaki on the tension between Zelensky’s expected emotional appeal to Congress and the clear lines the Biden administration has said it will not cross to help Ukraine.

“Well, I would say, because of the passion and the courage and the bravery of President Zelensky, 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.

But she added, “What we have the responsibility to do here is to assess what the impact is on the United States and our own national security. A no-fly zone is escalatory and could prompt a war with Russia, a major nuclear power.”