Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed to Congress for help directly Wednesday, telling US lawmakers “we need you right now” as he invoked tragedies in American history like the attack on Pearl Harbor and the September 11 terrorist attack.
The historic speech given as a virtual address comes as the United States is under pressure from Ukraine to supply more military assistance to the embattled country as it fights back against Russia’s deadly attacks.
“Friends, Americans, in your great history, you have pages that would allow you to understand Ukrainians, understand us now, when we need you right now,” he said through a translator at the start of his speech, though at the end of his remarks he spoke in English.
“Remember Pearl Harbor, terrible morning of December 7, 1941, when your sky was black from the planes attacking you,” Zelensky said. “Just remember it, remember, September the 11th, a terrible day in 2001 when evil tried to turn US cities into battlefields, when innocent people were attacked from air, just like nobody else expected it and you could not stop it. Our country experiences the same, every day, right now at this moment.”
While there is widespread bipartisan support for aid to Ukraine, many US lawmakers also believe the US should be careful not to be drawn into any kind of direct, armed conflict with Russia.
Zelensky also cited his call for the US to help enforce a no-fly zone in Ukraine — to protect civilians — and provide fighter aircraft that the Ukrainians can use to defend themselves.
These two controversial options divide lawmakers, with Republicans more hawkish about giving Ukraine jets, but some Democrats — and the White House — concerned Russia could consider such a move an escalation and potentially draw America into war.
Lawmakers of both parties say they are wary of a no-fly zone at this time because they think it could pit the US directly against Russia in the skies over Ukraine.
President Joe Biden plans to detail US assistance to Ukraine in a speech of his own later in the day Wednesday.
The US and its allies have taken a wide range of actions in recent weeks intended to punish Moscow for its invasion, including the rollout of harsh sanctions and export controls and a $350 million security assistance package. In addition, Congress recently passed a $13.6 billion emergency package to supply defensive, humanitarian and economic aid to Ukraine, and the Biden administration announced a $200 million assistance package this past weekend.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced the virtual address in a letter to lawmakers earlier this week. The speech was broadcast live and livestreamed.
“I hope he will acknowledge what we have done, but then call upon us to do that which he thinks is necessary to ultimately have the Ukrainians prevail,” Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Bob Menendez, a New Jersey Democrat, told reporters ahead of the speech when asked what he expects from the virtual address.
“He’s the President of his country, he’s going to make the maximalist ask on behalf of his people, that’s to be understood, but that always has to be reconciled with what’s in the national interest and security of the United States,” Menendez said when asked about requests from Zelensky such as a no-fly zone.
“I do think it’s important for Ukraine to prevail in the national interest of the United States, I just don’t think a no-fly zone or direct confrontation is what’s necessary to do that,” Menendez said.