Zelenskyy appeals to Congress, saying 'We need you right now'

LISA MASCARO
The Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy cited Pearl Harbor and the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, on Wednesday as he appealed to the U.S. Congress to do more to help Ukraine's fight against Russia.

Livestreamed into the Capitol complex, Zelenskyy said the U.S. must sanction Russian lawmakers and block imports, and he showed a packed auditorium of U.S. lawmakers an emotional video of the destruction and devastation in his country has suffered in the war.

"We need you right now," Zelenskyy said, adding, "I call on you to do more."

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In calling for more economic hits to the Russians, he said: "Peace is more important than income."

Lawmakers gave him a standing ovation, before and after his remarks.

Nearing the three-week mark in an ever-escalating war, Zelenskyy has used his campaign to implore allied leaders to "close the sky" to prevent the Russian airstrikes that are devastating his country. It has also put Zelenskyy at odds with President Joe Biden, whose administration has stopped short of providing a no-fly zone or the transfer of military jets from neighboring Poland as the U.S. seeks to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia.

Instead, Biden will deliver his own address following Zelenskyy's speech, in which he is expected to announce an additional $800 million in security assistance to Ukraine, according to a White House official. That would bring the total announced in the last week alone to $1 billion. It includes money for anti-armor and air-defense weapons, according to the official, who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Appearing in his now-trademark army green T-shirt as he appeals to world leaders, Zelenskyy has emerged as a heroic figure at the center of what many view as the biggest security threat to Europe since World War II. Almost 3 million refugees have fled Ukraine, the fastest exodus in modern times.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers a virtual address to Congress by video at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 16, 2022.   (Drew Angerer, Pool via AP)

The Ukrainian president is no stranger to Congress, having played a central role in Donald Trump's first impeachment. As president, Trump was accused of withholding security aid to Ukraine as he pressured Zelenskyy to dig up dirt on political rival Biden. Zelensky spoke on the giant screen to many of the same Republican lawmakers who declined to impeach or convict Trump but are among the bipartisan groundswell in Congress now clamoring for military aid to Ukraine.

Invoking Shakespeare's hero last week, Zelenskyy asked the British House of Commons whether Ukraine is "to be or not to be." On Tuesday, he appealed to "Dear Justin" as he addressed the Canadian Parliament and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Zelenskyy called on European Union leaders at the start of the war to do the politically unthinkable and fast-track Ukraine's membership — and he has continued to push for more help to save his young democracy than world leaders have so far pledged to do.

"I know he will ask for more help," said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Biden has insisted there will be no U.S. troops on the ground in Ukraine and has resisted Zelenskyy's relentless pleas for warplanes as too risky, potentially escalating into a direct confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia.

"Direct conflict between NATO and Russia is World War III," Biden has said.

U.S. defense officials say they are puzzled by Zelenskyy's demand for more warplanes. They say Ukraine isn't often flying the planes it has now, while making good use of other weapons the West is providing, including Stinger missiles for shooting down helicopters and other aircraft.

While officials are anticipating that Zelenskyy may once again call on the U.S. and the West for fighter jets or help establishing a no-fly zone, the Biden administration is looking to send Ukraine "more of what's been working well," according to an official who was not authorized to comment publicly and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Already the Biden administration has sent Ukraine more than 600 Stinger missiles, 2,600 Javelin anti-armor systems, unmanned aerial system tracking radars; grenade launchers, 200 shotguns, 200 machine guns and nearly 40 million rounds of small arms ammunition, along with helicopters, patrol boats, satellite imagery and body armor, helmets and other tactical gear, the official said.

Even though Zelenskyy and Biden speak almost daily by phone, the Ukrainian president has found a potentially more receptive audience in Congress.

This won't be the first time he has appealed directly to members of the House and Senate, who have remained remarkably unified in their support of Ukraine. Nearly two weeks ago, Zelenskyy delivered a desperate plea to some 300 lawmakers and staff on a private call that if they could not enforce a no-fly zone, at least send more planes.

"We think the United States needs to do more," said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., returning from a weekend visit with other lawmakers to Poland.

Congress has already approved $13.6 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine, and the newly announced security aid will come from that allotment, which is part of a broader bill that Biden signed into law Tuesday. But lawmakers expect more aid will be needed.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Zelenskyy asked for help in rebuilding his country when they spoke last week. It was in that call that Zelenskyy asked to address the U.S. Congress, something the Democratic leader readily agreed to.

"The Congress, our country and the world are in awe of the people of Ukraine," said Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in a statement Monday announcing the address.

They said Congress "remains unwavering in our commitment to supporting Ukraine as they face Putin's cruel and diabolical aggression."

Zelenskyy's next stop could be Spain. The speaker of Spain's Congress of Deputies has invited the Ukrainian president to address Spanish lawmakers via videolink.

In a letter to Zelenskyy, Speaker Meritxell Batet wrote that the address "will be a magnificent opportunity for the chamber, all Spanish people and the thousands of Ukrainians living in Spain to listen to your message and express our firmest support."