Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made an emotional appeal to a joint session of Congress Wednesday morning, evoking the memories of the aerial attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the Twin Towers and Pentagon in 2001 as a means of imploring the U.S. to provide more military assistance to his embattled country.
“Ladies and gentlemen. Friends. Americans. In your great history, you have pages that would allow you to understand Ukrainians,” Zelensky said by virtual address to the hundreds of lawmakers who crowded into the auditorium of the Capitol Visitors Center. “When innocent people were attacked from [the] air like no one expected it, you could not stop it. Our country experiences the same every day, right now, in this moment, every night, for three weeks now.”
The Ukrainian leader pushed for the designation of Ukrainian airspace as a no-fly zone, the imposition of more sanctions, the closure of U.S. ports to Russian goods, and for lawmakers to pressure businesses in their states that are directly or indirectly funneling money or supplies to Russia to cease operations in that country. Members of Congress, however, were torn on how to respond after the speech, weighing tricky politics—some Republicans who supported former GOP President Donald Trump’s soft stance on Vladimir Putin now are among those asking for some of the most aggressive response tactics against the Russian President—and even more perilous defense risks: designating Ukraine as a no-fly zone could prompt Russia to make retaliatory moves against the U.S, several lawmakers said.
“Requests to shut down in the skies—it’s compelling. But I think every one of us are deeply concerned about this spiraling into all-out war,” Congressman Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, told reporters after Zelensky spoke. “Putin is evil, and I don’t think any of us feel that it is beyond his capacity to use tactical nuclear weapons.”
Zelensky predicted this reaction from lawmakers as he pushed for the safe airspace designation. He preempted their opposition to such a move by offering an alternative: the delivery of as many S-300 missiles—which can shoot down aircrafts—as possible. “You know that they exist, and you have them,” he said.
Rep. Tom Malinowski, a New Jersey Democrat, applauded Zelensky’s negotiating tactic of asking for something lawmakers wouldn’t feel comfortable with, and then immediately suggesting a less zealous alternative. “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,” said Malinowski, who was born in Ukraine’s neighboring country Poland. “It’s brilliant.”
Last week, Congress passed a spending package that included more than $13 billion in aid to Ukraine. Hours after Zelensky’s speech on Wednesday, President Joe Biden announced an additional $800 million in security assistance, which the White House says will include anti-aircraft systems, drones, grenade launchers, and other weapons and armor.
Lawmakers were broadly supportive of orchestrating the delivery of more military weapons and aircraft to Ukraine after Zelensky’s remarks. Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican and former military officer, said Zelensky’s speech made her want to “throw on my uniform and go help.” She called for the Biden Administration to step up its response. “This Administration needs to tell President Zelensky we’re sending you whatever aircraft you need. We’re going to transfer F16s to Poland and we’re going to make sure the MiGs get to you,” she said. “Whatever it is—surface to air missiles—let’s make sure that we are doing everything possible to defeat the Russians.”
About a week ago, the U.S. had seemed ready to proceed with a deal that would have resulted in the U.S. orchestration of Polish-owned MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, by having the U.S. replenish the Polish Air Force’s loss of fighter jets with American-owned F-16 ones. That deal fell through, however, when Poland requested that the U.S. make arrangements with Ukraine to route the MiG jets through a U.S. military base in Germany, rather than routing them directly to Ukraine from Poland. “That’s too dangerous,” Congressman Gregory Meeks, a New York Democrat, told reporters, after explaining how the deal fell apart. “That puts us close [to] getting into World War III.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat and chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said he supports providing Ukraine with aircraft, but argues that “the more compelling need is to provide them with the means to shoot down Russian aircraft.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky agreed with several Democrats who argued in favor of providing Ukraine with air defense missiles, while Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois called for a “blank check” on sanctions against Russian actors.
Many lawmakers from both sides of the aisle became emotional during and after Zelensky’s remarks. Some cried. Zelensky suggested American lawmakers shouldn’t have to think too hard about what it might feel like to be under siege and require more security. “Remember September 11?” Zelensky said.
The annexed portion of the Capitol Complex that the members gathered in to hear Zelensky draw the comparison couldn’t have been more apt: After 9/11, its construction was expedited and its funding was enhanced to provide lawmakers more security of their own.