Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday begged Congress for more help defending his country, comparing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion to past American tragedies and asking for help to stop Russia’s ongoing aerial attacks.
Zelensky invoked Pearl Harbor and September 11 in his address, encouraging lawmakers to remember the feeling of being under attack and saying his country is at present experiencing that feeling daily. “Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people,” he said.
Zelensky reiterated his call for a no-fly zone, but he said that if that is too much to ask, the United States could provide aerial defense systems and advanced aircraft to help Ukraine combat the Russian bombing campaigns.
“This is a terror Europe has not seen for 80 years, and we are asking for a response,” he said, referencing the horrors of World War II.
The United States has opposed creating a no-fly zone over Ukraine, as shooting down Russian planes would involve direct, lethal engagement between two nuclear-armed powers. Instead, the U.S. government has sent billions in military and humanitarian aid, while also imposing harsh economic sanctions on Russian, including by largely cutting the country off from the global financial system.
Zelensky addressed Congress virtually and was greeted by a lengthy and bipartisan standing ovation when he appeared onscreen. Appearing in the now-familiar military-green t-shirt and in a plain white room next to a Ukrainian flag, Zelensky mostly addressed the lawmakers in Ukrainian as his address was translated. But he concluded his remarks in English, calling directly on President Biden to be “the leader of the world, the leader of peace.”
Following his address, Zelensky displayed a montage of strikes and attacks on Ukrainian civilians, showing the destruction wrought by the invasion and the suffering it has caused to civilians. It ended with a plea: “Close the sky over Ukraine.”
President Zelensky shows the United States Congress a video of his nation being destroyed by Vladimir Putin's forces, and tells America: "Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace." pic.twitter.com/QBFYc8Ex1H
— Josh Campbell (@joshscampbell) March 16, 2022
Zelensky’s appearance before Congress follows several similar appeals for assistance to Western allies by the Ukrainian leader in recent days — some of which have elicited intensely emotional responses. The former comedian’s address before British Parliament earlier this month, which invoked a famous wartime speech by Winston Churchill, resulted in a standing ovation; remarks delivered to European Union leaders just days before led his interpreter to lose composure, seemingly overwhelmed by Zelensky’s description of the carnage brought upon the people of Ukraine.
In the weeks since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine, Zelensky has become a towering figure on the global stage. His defiant, impassioned addresses to Ukrainian citizens and world leaders, now stripped of governmental pomp and circumstance, have positioned the young politician as somewhat of a David to Putin’s Goliath, a defender of democracy sporting an olive green t-shirt. (And, as expected, this newfound fame unfortunately correlates with a rise in Zelensky-related thirst posting on social media.)
Zelensky first spoke with American lawmakers nearly two weeks ago in a virtual meeting where he implored the U.S. to take stronger actions against Russia, which included a repeat request for the establishment of a no-fly zone over Ukraine, as well as a ban on the importation of Russian oil. Concerns over Zelensky’s safety led Ukrainian ambassador Oksana Markarova to ask lawmakers to refrain from posting to social media during that meeting — but that didn’t stop Sens. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) and Steve Daines (R-Mont.) from sharing screenshots of the Ukrainian president to Twitter.
In January, weeks before the Russian invasion, the U.S. sent a reported 90 tons of military equipment to Ukraine as part of a $200 million assistance package assembled by the Biden administration in December of last year. In late February, Biden authorized an additional $350 million in military aid culled from Department of Defense inventory, according to a statement from Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby. NATO nations are also contributing to Ukraine’s defense, sending everything from missiles to ammunition to Ukrainian forced.
Russia’s war on Ukraine has crescendoed rapidly since Putin’s Feb. 21 speech announcing “special military operations” aimed at “peacekeeping.” When Putin amassed troops at the Ukrainian border in previous weeks, optimists hoped it was a warning — not a prelude to invasion. Yet, just minutes after Putin’s announcement, air strikes began around major Ukrainian cities and Russian troops began crossing into the country. Now, nearly one month later, hundreds of innocent civilians have been killed and, according to the United Nations, more than 3 million Ukrainians have fled the country.
Response to the Kremlin’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine was swift, with numerous countries — primarily those associated with the NATO and the European Union — enacting harsh sanctions on Russia aimed at financially crippling Moscow, ranging from restricting use of international banking systems, bans on Russian imports and exports and seizure of Russian assets abroad. Private enterprises have also announced a halt on Russian-based operations, with major music labels, movie studios and restaurant chains all pausing business dealings in the country.
Putin’s objection to the Zelensky administration primarily lies with its pro-western orientation. Under Zelensky, Ukraine has sought membership in NATO — a red line for Russia — in addition to tightening economic and diplomatic ties with the European Union. The Kremlin previously backed the regime of Viktor Yanukovych, who was elected in 2010 with Russia’s tacit backing, subsequently orienting Ukraine toward Moscow — but Yanukovych was ousted as part of a civil uprising known as the Maidan revolution in 2014.
Russia considered Yanukovych’s overthrow a coup and refused to recognize the legitimacy of his successor. Pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces have engaged in a low-level struggle ever since, primarily in the two separatist territories in the eastern parts of the country.