‘Close the sky over Ukraine’: Zelenskyy pleads to US Congress

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked the United States Congress for a no-fly zone and more sanctions in his latest public appeal for help as Russians continue their invasion that has killed thousands and pushed more than three million refugees into Eastern Europe.

“We need you right now. I call on you to do more,” Zelenskyy said Wednesday, addressing the US Congress by video from Kyiv.

Zelenskyy thanked the US for the aid it has already provided and praised President Joe Biden for “his personal involvement for his sincere commitment to the defence of Ukraine and democracy all over the world”.

Biden has approved $13.6bn in military and financial support for Ukraine, but not the military jets and no-fly zone Zelenskyy has been calling for. The White House has said those actions would be seen as a military escalation and the US does not want to be drawn into the war.

“If this is too much to ask,” the Ukrainian leader said of the no-fly zone, “we offer an alternative. You know what kind of defence systems we need.”

Zelenskyy also urged Congress to broaden the economic and political sanctions the US has imposed on Russia.

He asked that the US sanction all Russian politicians who do not cut ties with those responsible for the aggression in Ukraine and close all its ports to Russian goods. He also urged US companies to leave the Russian market “because it is flooded with our blood”.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers a virtual address to Congress by video at the US Capitol in Washington, DC [Sarah Silbiger/Pool via AP]

The Ukrainian president’s appearance before the US Congress follows ones before the British House of Commons and the Parliament of Canada in appeals for more military support – including the call for a no-fly zone.

Zelenskyy spoke to the US legislators in terms that resonate deeply for Americans, invoking the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought the US into World War II and the September 11, 2001 al-Qaeda attacks “from the sky” that triggered the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq.

The Ukrainian leader recalled the words of the slain US civil rights leader Martin Luther King, who said “I have a dream”; and he played a video for legislators that showed the past three weeks of war in Ukraine, including dead bodies on streets, buildings being bombed, mass graves and refugees fleeing.

He concluded with a simple plea: “Close the skies.”

US legislators gave Zelenskyy standing ovations at the beginning and end of his remarks.

Senator Ben Sasse, a Republican, praised Zelenskyy after the speech, saying the US needs to provide more military aid.

“What Zelenskyy asked President Biden and the United States Congress to do is answer whether we have the courage of our convictions,” Sasse said.

“Zelenskyy needs to win. The Ukrainian freedom fighters need to win. 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,” Sasse said.

“If you ask for a no-fly zone, you might get things less than a no-fly zone, because people feel guilty that they can’t provide it, will instead provide other things such as economic aid, humanitarian aid, and defensive weapons,” said Peter Harris, an associate professor at Colorado State University and a fellow at Defense Priorities, a US-based think-tank.

“He’s fighting for the survival of Ukraine as a state. The future of Ukraine hangs in the balance. So from his perspective, it may be rational to want NATO to declare war on Russia,” Harris said.

Support is building in Congress among legislators from both parties, Democrats and Republicans, to provide Ukraine with more weapons. Congressional aides say constituents are calling members of Congress to respond to the images of death and destruction being wrought by the Russian attack.

US officials are considering providing Ukraine with small, portable remote-controlled “switchblade” drones that can be used to attack Russian ground troops and armour from stand-off positions, various US news outlets reported.

“This would be a capability that the Ukrainians themselves on the ground in Ukraine would be able to leverage for their own defence and to use as a significant advantage against the Russian army,” Representative Abigail Spanberger, a Democrat, told MSNBC on Wednesday.

President Biden is set to speak later Wednesday at the White House, where he is expected to lay out details of $800m in new aid for Ukraine following his signing of the $13.6bn Ukrainian aid bill on Tuesday.

“With this new security funding, and the drawdown authorities in this bill, we’re moving urgently to further augment the support the brave people of Ukraine as they defend their country,” Biden said on Tuesday.

The US has been providing Ukraine with anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.

Biden will travel to Europe next week for face-to-face talks with European leaders about the Russian invasion of Ukraine at a NATO summit in Brussels on March 24 and a European Union summit the same day for discussions on further sanctions on Russia and humanitarian efforts to help Ukraine.

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