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Addressing Congress, Ukrainian President Zelensky pleads for military aid

The Ukrainian president called on Biden to ‘be the leader of the world’ and ‘be the leader of peace’

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky delivers a video address to members of the U.S. House and Senate gathered in the Capitol Visitor Center on March 16. (Scott Applewhite/Pool/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, addressing Congress on Wednesday from a capital being attacked by Russian artillery fire and missiles, delivered a stark new plea for American military aid, making a moral case to hundreds of gathered lawmakers that the world’s preeminent superpower must do more to prevent his nation’s destruction.

In a 16-minute presentation, Zelensky cited the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the words of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. — and played a searing video of the carnage inside Ukraine — as he sought to push President Biden and lawmakers to further action. He called on them to layer potent air-defense systems and new Russian financial sanctions on top of the military transfers, humanitarian aid and economic salvos that the United States has already delivered since Russia began bombarding Ukrainian cities last month.

“Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people,” Zelensky said through an interpreter. “Russian troops have already fired nearly 1,000 missiles at Ukraine, countless bombs. They use drones to kill us with precision.”

He followed up: “I need to protect our sky. I need your decision, your help.”

Zelensky reiterated a call for a Western-enforced no-fly zone — a move Biden and other Western leaders have rejected as tantamount to starting a world war — but he quickly moved on to other specific requests that have gained wider support in Washington.

They included transferring surface-to-air missile systems and aircraft to Ukraine, further cracking down on Russian trade, and imposing sanctions on a much wider range of Russian political leaders, including all members of the State Duma, the lower house of the national legislature.

Zelensky speech to Congress could add pressure on Biden

In his final words, Zelensky addressed Biden, who was not present on Capitol Hill with the hundreds of lawmakers who crowded into a movie-theater-style auditorium in the bowels of the Capitol Visitor Center to hear Zelensky speak from Kyiv by video link.

“You are the leader of the nation, of your great nation — I wish you to be the leader of the world,” he said, speaking in English after giving most of his address in Ukrainian. “Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.”

Citing the risk of sparking “World War III,” Biden has ruled out a U.S.-enforced no-fly zone and has paused plans to transfer Soviet-era fighter jets to Ukraine. Speaking Wednesday afternoon, Biden called Zelensky’s address “convincing” and “significant” but gave no indication that he has changed his views on those matters.

Biden declared, however, that the U.S. and allies would “stay the course” and “do everything we can to push for and end this tragic, unnecessary war.” After the speech, he signed an order providing for the transfer of an additional $800 million in materiel from U.S. arsenals to Ukraine, bringing the total American military commitment to roughly $2 billion over the past year.

The new order, Biden said, would allow for the transfer of 800 antiaircraft missiles, 9,000 antitank rounds, 7,000 small arms and roughly 20 million rounds of ammunition.

“This is a struggle that pits the appetites of an autocrat against humankind’s desire to be free, and let there be no doubt, no uncertainty, no question: America stands with the forces of freedom,” he said, naming Russian President Vladimir Putin. “We always have. We always will.”

Both Biden and Zelensky denounced Russia’s apparent widespread attacks on civilian and humanitarian targets. Zelensky’s presentation was punctuated by a graphic two-minute video that opened with tranquil scenes of Ukrainian life before the invasion, then graphic scenes of the Russian bombardments and its consequences.

Set to plaintive string music, the video depicted parents crying as they kiss their children, wounded Ukrainians in hospital beds, children in tears, and bloodstained sheets over corpses. “This is a murder,” a caption read. The video ended with the words: “Close the sky over Ukraine.”

A United Nations office tracking civilian casualties has confirmed 726 killed and 1,174 injured, though it warns the actual figures are probably “considerably higher.” Ukraine’s defense ministry said Saturday that about 1,300 Ukrainian troops had been killed since the initial attack, while Russia’s government has not reported combat deaths since March 2, when it put the figure at 498 — what Western intelligence officials say was a severe undercount.

More than 3 million refugees have left Ukraine, an exodus that is on pace to become Europe’s worst humanitarian crisis in this century.

Soon after Zelensky’s speech came reports that an airstrike hit Mariupol’s Drama Theater, a cultural site in the heart of the besieged city where hundreds of residents have been seeking shelter in recent days.

Some attendees were moved to tears by the video, according to those leaving the auditorium after the speech, and many said the images made a powerful case for further American intervention.

“Not a muscle moved, not a voice — just absolutely riveting,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), who was among a delegation of senators who traveled to Ukraine’s border with Poland over the weekend. Zelensky, he said, made the case that “we have an opportunity and obligation to take much more forceful action.”

“I do think we need to provide them with much more robust air defense, drones, planes, antiaircraft batteries — all of the technology that we have available that is defensive,” he added. “Ukrainians can win a fair fight on the ground. Right now, they have encountered a reign of terror in the skies.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a virtual speech before Congress on March 16. (Video: Allie Caren/The Washington Post)

Republicans who have spent weeks calling on the Biden administration to do more amplified those calls Wednesday, saying the United States should act posthaste to get jets and other weapons systems to Ukraine, and many Democrats joined them.

Poland last week publicly offered to deliver Soviet-era MiG fighters to an American air base in Germany, putting the burden on the United States to transfer them into Ukrainian hands. The Pentagon declined the offer after concluding that the risk of provoking a further escalation with Russia outweighed the planes’ potential benefit.

That did not stop Zelensky from repeating his request after initially calling for the planes in a private March 5 call with members of Congress. On Wednesday, however, Zelensky first mentioned surface-to-air missile systems — the “S-300 and other similar systems,” referring to a Soviet-era system that is operated by a handful of NATO countries — before asking for more planes.

“You know how much depends on the battlefield on the ability to use aircraft … to protect our people, our freedom, our land,” he said. “You know that they exist and you have them, but they are on earth, not in the Ukrainian sky.”

Biden appeared to heed the call for new, more potent missiles in his remarks Wednesday. “At the request of President Zelensky,” he said, “we have identified and are helping Ukraine acquire additional longer-range antiaircraft systems and the munitions for those systems.”

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A White House official declined to specify which weapons Biden was referring to or from whose possession they might be transferred but said the administration is “continuing to work with our allies and key partners to surge new assistance, including Soviet- or Russian-origin antiaircraft systems and the necessary ammunition to employ them.”

Still, the initial reaction to Zelensky’s speech showed that there is hardly any limit to the appetite that many lawmakers have for further assistance to Ukraine, short of direct American intervention in the conflict. That is especially true of Republicans who have sought to cast Biden as feckless for insisting on acting in concert with European allies, and several said after Zelensky’s speech that Biden simply needed to do more.

“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,” said Sen. Ben Sasse (R-Neb.). “The burden of proof should be on us about why we wouldn’t supply everything they need.”

But emotional appeals from Zelensky did little to persuade even the most hawkish members of Congress on a no-fly zone, which lawmakers and administration officials have broadly warned could spiral into a broader conflict directly involving U.S. forces.

“I understand the need from the Ukrainian perspective,” said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). “But when the president and his team indicate that that would be an escalation that would involve the potential conflict between NATO members and Russia, he’s right.”

NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg reiterated Wednesday that the alliance would play no role in establishing a no-fly zone. “We have a responsibility to ensure that this conflict, this war, doesn’t escalate beyond Ukraine,” he said after a meeting of NATO member defense ministers.

While there is widespread support for Ukraine in the United States, there is also great reluctance to become involved in another war. Three-quarters of Americans said the United States should do whatever it can to help Ukraine without risking a direct war between the United States and Russia, while 17 percent said the country should do whatever it takes, even if it means war, according to a Quinnipiac University poll released Wednesday.

According to an Economist/YouGov poll from this week, 38 percent of U.S. citizens said enforcing a no-fly zone over Ukraine was a “good idea” and 27 percent said it was a “bad idea.” But when asked about whether the U.S. military should shoot down Russian military planes flying over Ukraine or not — the definition of a no-fly zone — opposition rose to 49 percent and support was 20 percent.

Many lawmakers are continuing to push for transfer of the Polish MiGs to Ukraine, including Graham, who introduced a resolution Wednesday backing the move and said it would represent “a shot in the arm” for Ukraine and “a blow to Putin.”

But the administration has made some headway on Capitol Hill in convincing some Democrats that the jets should not be the top priority. Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.), a former Navy pilot, said he was concerned by reports that Ukraine is not using some of the jets it already has in its inventory.

“I want to give them what they need,” he said, but “you’re advocating taking airplanes from another country who is bordering a country that’s at war, taking one-third of their fighter air force and giving them to a country that might not be using them.”

Beyond the military demands, Zelensky called for new economic actions against Russia, including closing American ports to all Russian goods, pressuring U.S. companies still doing business in Russia to withdraw, and imposing sanctions on “all politicians in the Russian Federation who remain in their offices and do not cut ties with those who are responsible for the aggression against Ukraine.”

He called for new sanctions to be imposed “constantly, every week, until the Russian military machine stops,” demanding a complete Western withdrawal from the Russian economy “because it is flooded with our blood.”

“Peace is more important than income,” he said.

The Biden administration worked with allies to implement a wide-ranging sanctions package in the immediate aftermath of the Russian invasion on Feb. 24, including effectively ending a major gas pipeline into Central Europe, freezing much of Russia’s foreign currency reserves, and imposing sanctions specifically on Putin, his inner circle and dozens of oligarchs. Since then, Biden has moved under congressional pressure to ban Russian oil and gas imports to the United States and to strip Russia of trade preferences it has enjoyed for a decade, which would impose new tariffs on its imports to the U.S.

Congress is negotiating legislation that would enshrine those trade actions into law, but it is likely to stop well short of Zelensky’s demand for a total shutdown of Russian commerce. Key Capitol Hill negotiators said Wednesday that a deal could be struck as soon as this week.

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Among the armaments that the United States has provided to Ukraine over the past year are more than 600 Stinger antiaircraft missiles, roughly 2,600 Javelin anti-armor missiles, 200 grenade launchers and nearly 40 million rounds of ammunition, according to a White House official.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), a key Ukraine ally who also traveled to Poland in recent days, said that the additional military assistance Biden announced Wednesday is welcome but that he wanted to hear more details on how the military aid would be delivered in time to make a difference on the ground in Ukraine.

“It’s not just about money,” he said. “It’s about doing things more quickly and being more creative.”

Seung Min Kim, Ashley Parker, Emily Guskin and Eugene Scott contributed to this report.

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