Five things to watch for during Zelensky’s address to Congress

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will address U.S. lawmakers virtually on Wednesday in what will be a closely watched and likely emotional speech on the 21st day of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Zelensky has spoken frequently with President Biden since the invasion began on Feb. 24 — Biden says “almost daily” — and he addressed a small group of lawmakers via video earlier this month. But Wednesday’s address will give Zelensky a chance to make his case to Congress as a whole and the American people for why the U.S. and its allies should do more to punish Russia and bolster Ukrainian defenses.

Here are five things to watch for when Zelensky addresses Congress.

How forceful are Zelensky’s calls for a no-fly zone and fighter jets? 

Zelensky will have a captive audience and a major stage on Wednesday to lay out his case for why the U.S. providing much-needed air support to Ukraine is worth the risk of escalation with Russia.

He has for weeks been pleading with the United States and its allies to do more to help Ukraine, pushing hard for a no-fly zone over Ukrainian airspace or, at the least, for the West to provide warplanes to combat Russia’s air power. He will likely point to the rise in civilian casualties to argue time is running out for allies to give Ukraine the military support it needs to beat back Russian advances.

The White House and Pentagon have thus far rebuffed his pleas, reluctant to take any action Russia could see as an escalation and lead to a global war.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday offered something of a prebuttal to Zelensky’s likely argument, pointing to billions of dollars in aid just approved by Congress and the risk of U.S. military involvement.

“The president has to look at decisions that are made through the prism of what is in our national security interest and global security interest. And he continues to believe that a no-fly zone would be escalatory, would prompt a war with Russia,” Psaki said. 

A number of lawmakers support sending fighter jets to Ukraine, but the U.S. last week took issue with a proposal from Poland to provide those planes. Psaki said Tuesday the U.S. position on the transfer of warplanes has not changed.

Can Zelensky build more public support for Ukraine?

Zelensky’s speech on Wednesday will likely be carried live by major networks and be widely shared on social media, giving the Ukrainian president a chance to speak directly to the American public as much as to lawmakers.

In a speech to Canada’s Parliament on Tuesday, Zelensky appealed to the audience in personal terms, asking Prime Minister Justin Trudeau how he would explain to his children that their country was being bombed. 

The Ukrainian president may take a similar approach on Wednesday to appeal directly to the American public and explain the gravity of the situation in Ukraine.

Polls have shown the majority of Americans already support Ukraine and back sanctions placed on Russia to squeeze its economy, including the ban on Russian oil imports announced last week.

A CBS News poll published Sunday showed 62 percent of Americans oppose establishing a no-fly zone if it was viewed as an act of war. But 52 percent of respondents said Biden’s actions on Russia have not been tough enough, a sign there is some public appetite for the administration to do more with economic sanctions or through sending weapons and supplies.

How does Zelensky balance criticism and appreciation of the US’s response?

Zelensky has publicly thanked foreign leaders for their support, whether it be via military assistance, humanitarian aid or sanctions on Russia.

But the Ukrainian leader has also been adamant for weeks that allies must do more to stave off the Russian offensive, and he has been vocally frustrated with the lack of movement on issues like a no-fly zone.

Zelensky’s address to Canadian lawmakers on Tuesday served as something of a preview for how the Ukrainian president might try and thread that needle on Wednesday.

Zelensky on Tuesday thanked Canada, which he called a “steadfast supporter” of Ukraine. But he was also blunt in his calls for a no-fly zone, seeking to illustrate the urgent nature of the issue by asking lawmakers to imagine Toronto or Ottawa under attack instead of Kyiv. 

“We’ve been friends with you, Justin,” Zelensky said, addressing Trudeau by his first name. “But also I would like you to understand — and I would like you to feel this — what we feel every day. We want to live, and we want to be victorious.”

“How many more cruise missiles have to fall on our cities until you make this happen?” Zelensky asked.

Does Zelensky’s speech increase congressional pressure on Biden?

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill have been fairly successful in lobbying the White House to take more aggressive steps to defend the outgunned Ukrainians from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s unprovoked assault. They had pushed for tougher sanctions on Russian banks and oligarchs, promoted the ban on Russian energy imports and championed the end to formal trade relations with Moscow — all steps that Biden later endorsed. 

It’s not quite the case that Congress is forcing Biden’s hand; rather, the president has avoided being out front on any escalatory measures, waiting until he could act in concert with America’s NATO allies. But congressional lawmakers have applied plenty of pressure, and their lobbying has predicted moves that Biden ultimately made.

Whether that successful track record continues remains to be seen. 

Biden’s clear red line against entering Ukraine has put stark limitations on the U.S. response. It’s precluded the establishment of a no-fly zone, stalled the transfer of Polish fighter jets to Ukrainian forces and dictated that even humanitarian aid must be delivered across the border by the Ukrainians themselves. And Biden has been forceful about maintaining that non-encroachment strategy, warning that more aggressive steps would spark World War III.

Still, Zelensky’s popularity, at home and abroad, has soared since Putin’s forces began the assault — a sentiment that’s shared on Capitol Hill. The mounting civilian casualties have been aired in real time on cable news and social media. And lawmakers have recently expressed amazement at the outcry they’re hearing from voters around the country, who are increasingly supportive of Washington doing more to counter Russia’s atrocities. 

“We need to make sure that we do everything we can, short of risking a world war,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). 

Zelensky, a gifted orator, is sure to inspire at least some lawmakers to press harder for that very thing. 

Do any House Republicans skip the speech?

Despite Zelensky’s popularity, there may be some Republicans who choose to boycott Wednesday’s speech — whether to protest the Ukrainian president or COVID-19 safety protocols at home.

Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.), a strong supporter of former President Trump, made waves last week when he called Zelensky a “thug,” and the Ukrainian government “evil,” during a town hall meeting in his district. 

Cawthorn’s remarks were widely condemned by prominent figures in both parties, but they highlighted the stark shift in foreign policy Republicans have adopted toward Russia in the era of Trump, who famously said he trusted Putin more than his own intelligence agencies and more recently praised the Russian president as “very savvy” following the invasion of Ukraine.

Tucker Carlson, the popular Fox News pundit, has also defended Putin, if indirectly, questioning why the U.S. would intervene to defend Ukraine from Russian aggression.

Zelensky’s speech also comes as the omicron wave of the coronavirus has receded around the country and life on Capitol Hill is working its way back to pre-pandemic normalcy. Almost. 

Although Democratic leaders have rolled back many of the public health rules that have governed life in the Capitol over the last two years, they have stipulated that anyone who remains unvaccinated will have to wear a mask during Zelensky’s speech, which will be broadcast inside the cavernous auditorium of the Capitol Visitors Center.  

The mandate could spark an uproar from any number of conservative lawmakers who have resisted the public health protocols throughout the pandemic. Some, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), have been fined repeatedly for going maskless. Others, like Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.), defied the mandatory COVID-19 testing rule surrounding Biden’s State of the Union address earlier this month. 

It’s unclear if the mask rule will be enforced. 

Tags Donald Trump Jen Psaki Joe Biden Justin Trudeau Lauren Boebert Marjorie Taylor Greene Russia Russian invasion of Ukraine Steny Hoyer Tucker Carlson Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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