By Lisa Hagen
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made an emotional and personal appeal to Congress and President Joe Biden, invoking past deadly attacks against Americans like Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11 as he pleaded for more assistance to fend off Russian aggression.
Members of the House and Senate packed an auditorium in the Capitol on Wednesday morning to watch Zelenskyy’s virtual address from Kyiv and gave him two standing ovations. Zelenskyy, dressed in what has become his customary olive drab T-shirt with the emblem of the Ukrainian military on the chest, thanked lawmakers and Biden for the humanitarian and military support his country has received thus far, but as the invasion stretches into the third week, “I call on you to do more.”
The Ukrainian leader asked the U.S. to punish politicians in the Russian Federation who remain in office, issuing new sanctions “every week until the Russia military machine stops.” And, as expected, Zelenskyy once again called for a “no-fly” zone over Ukraine despite the Biden administration and other NATO allies’ opposition to imposing one.
“Is this too much to ask?” Zelenskyy said, adding that he’s offering an “alternative” of providing his country with additional military support through air defense systems. Biden has also rejected Poland’s offer to deliver fighter jets to Ukraine, though that proposal has garnered some bipartisan support in Congress.
Zelenskyy has been delivering remote speeches to the governments of other allies, but his remarks on Wednesday to Congress were tailored to the U.S., drawing on specific moments in American history. He drew parallels between the horror and destruction now happening in Eastern Europe to attacks and strikes at Pearl Harbor during World War II and the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
And when asking for assistance to protect the skies, Zelenskyy also referenced Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech.
“Our country experienced the same every day, right now at this moment, every night for three weeks now. Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people,” Zelenskyy said.
Toward the end of his speech, he paused his remarks to play a gut-wrenching video contrasting images of once-vibrant cities throughout Ukraine with the pictures that have emerged of deaths and brutal injuries of Ukrainians, including young children and infants.
“Now, I am almost 45 years old. Today my age stopped when the hearts of more than 100 children stopped beating,” Zelenskyy said after the video, switching from speaking in Ukrainian to English. “I see no sense in life if it cannot stop the deaths.”
While Biden wasn’t in attendance on Wednesday, Zelenskyy also spoke directly to Biden, though the two frequently speak privately by phone. The Ukrainian leader made it clear throughout the speech that he expects both Congress and Biden to do more as the leaders of the world.
“You are the leader of the nation,” Zelenskyy said. “Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.”
In what will ultimately be a response to Zelenskyy’s speech to Congress, Biden will deliver his own remarks later Wednesday morning and reportedly announce an additional $800 million in aid to Ukraine. But the White House has been adamant that “a no-fly zone would be escalatory.”
Biden will travel to Brussels later this month to attend a NATO summit on March 24 to meet with European allies to determine ways to deter Russia and help protect Ukraine.