The Memo

The Memo: Zelensky virtual address raises pressure on Biden

A moment of enormous political drama is assured on Wednesday, when Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will give a virtual address to Congress. 

The speech was announced Monday by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

But Zelensky’s speech could come with complications for President Biden, given that the Ukrainian president is virtually certain to renew his plea for a no-fly zone over his country and for more weaponry, including warplanes. 

Biden, and most American lawmakers in both parties, are opposed to a no-fly zone, at least for the moment. They note the only way it can be enforced is if U.S. or other Western forces are willing to shoot down Russian planes — something that would likely ignite a full-blown war between Russia and the United States. 

The issue of facilitating Ukraine in getting warplanes is a more nuanced one. The Biden administration backed away last week from a proposal from NATO member Poland to provide MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine, amid some confusion.  

The White House’s position on that issue has come in for plenty of GOP criticism. Forty Republican senators last week wrote an open letter supporting the provision of war planes to Ukraine. “Send them the planes they need,” Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said at a news conference. 

Now Zelensky will be making a version of the same argument.  

He will be doing so having won near-universal acclaim for his leadership and personal bravery since the Russian invasion began. Zelensky, a former TV star, has also proven adept at using social media, becoming a charismatic counterweight to Russian President Vladimir Putin. 

Zelensky already spoke to U.S. lawmakers via Zoom on March 5. But that call was restricted to lawmakers, whereas Wednesday’s address is expected to be made available to TV networks. 

“He is going to be pleading with the Congress of the United States, with both Houses, with Democrats and Republicans, for more help to Ukraine. He will be making what is fundamentally a moral case,” said Kurt Volker, who served as U.S. special representative for Ukrainian negotiations during former President Trump’s administration.  

Democrats and Republicans are at least in agreement that it will be a unique moment. 

“Rare is a moment when a foreign leader addresses a joint session of Congress, period. But this is an ally, under attack in a war, speaking from a bunker,” said Joel Rubin, who was a deputy assistant secretary of State under former President Obama. “This is extraordinary.”

Whether Zelensky can use the moment to actually shift U.S. policy is a very different question, however. 

He has had a mixed record so far. He urged lawmakers to support an embargo on imports of Russian oil during his March 5 call, and Biden duly took that step just three days later. But he made the same calls back then for a no-fly zone and warplanes, too — a request that clearly has not yet been fulfilled.  

American lawmakers and experts have real fears about getting sucked into a huge, catastrophic conflict. 

“We do not want to participate in World War III,” said Rubin. “On the politics, there really isn’t political support for a no-fly zone in any meaningful way yet. [Biden] scores very well, time and time again, on how he is threading the needle with strong support for Ukraine but not getting into a war with Russia. 

“That is scoring politically, and that is the right policy.” 

Still, some independent experts note that there is value in Zelensky delivering a high-profile address, even aside from the specific policy debates over the nature of U.S. assistance. 

Yoshiko Herrera, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Russia expert, noted that the Ukrainian president has an important role to play in maintaining support among the public in Western nations. 

There is already economic pain being felt by American and European consumers as the crisis drives up gas prices and adds to inflationary pressures.  

“Further economic problems are certainly coming, so public pressure is important to keeping people on board,” Herrera said. 

She also made an even more somber point. 

“Zelensky is a target of the Russian war effort. So the more people who get to know Zelensky in Europe, in the United States, the worse it will be for Russia if they try to kill him.” 

In terms of U.S. domestic politics, it is not just Biden who might feel some pressure when the Ukrainian president delivers his virtual address. 

While most lawmakers — and most of the American public — identifies with Ukraine’s plight in the war, that is not true across the board.  

Trump at one point expressed admiration for Putin’s strategic “genius” and “savvy,” though the former president has shifted to a much more pro-Ukraine brand of rhetoric recently. 

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) sparked controversy when he recently called Zelensky a “thug” and the Ukrainian government “incredibly corrupt.” 

While many Republicans condemned Cawthorn’s view out of hand, some in the GOP continue to be hesitant about full-throated support for Ukraine. 

“Ukraine is not a member of NATO and we shouldn’t treat them as if they are,” Rep. Warren Davidson (R-Ohio) said in an interview with NewsNation’s “Morning in America” on Monday. “There have been a lot of corruption issues in Ukraine.” 

Davidson, though, also labeled Putin’s invasion “clearly unjust.” 

Zelensky’s speech is a key opportunity to further marginalize voices like Cawthorn, said Volker, the former U.S. special representative.

“I think those people are already eating their words because the more people see about what is really happening in Ukraine, Zelensky has proven to be a remarkable leader,” he said. “Ukrainians have shown remarkable skill in defense of their country and the Russians are just acting with barbarity. So I don’t think those people will be repeating those words anytime soon.” 

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

Tags Barack Obama Charles Schumer Congress Donald Trump invasion Joe Biden Kurt Volker Mitt Romney Nancy Pelosi Russia The Memo Ukraine Vladimir Putin Warren Davidson Zelensky address

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