Zelensky invokes 9/11 in pressing Congress for help

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday implored the U.S. and its allies to “close the sky over Ukraine,” invoking Pearl Harbor and 9/11 and showing graphic images of the destruction and death wrought by Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

“Right now, the destiny of our country is being decided, the destiny of our people, whether Ukrainians will be free, whether they will be able to preserve their democracy,” Zelensky said in an impassioned virtual address to members of Congress, saying Russia has launched an assault on not only Ukrainian cities but also Ukrainian values and freedom.

“Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people.” 

Zelensky, who was met with a standing ovation by lawmakers in the room, used the speech to call for a humanitarian no-fly zone — an option the U.S. and NATO have consistently ruled out — and called for delivery of Soviet-era S-300 air defense systems to repel Russian air strikes. 

Switching from Ukrainian to English, he closed his remarks by addressing President Biden directly, urging him to “be the leader of peace.”

“I am addressing President Biden, you are the leader of the nation, your nation. I wish you to be the leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace,” Zelensky said.

The speech by the Ukrainian president is part of a global push to increase defensive assistance and humanitarian support to Ukraine and pressure Russian President Vladimir Putin to pull back from his nearly three-week assault on the country. Zelensky has delivered similar addresses to the British and Canadian parliaments in recent days. He is expected to address the Israeli parliament next week. 

Zelensky expressed gratitude for the steps the U.S. has taken thus far, but made clear his belief that more is needed to punish Russia and assist Ukraine as it defends against the ongoing invasion. 

In particular, Zelensky also called for sending warplanes to Ukraine after requests to the U.S. to help directly send Soviet-era fighter jets to the country fell through over concerns by the Biden administration that such a move would escalate the fighting to a conflict between Russia and the U.S. and NATO.

“You have them, but they are on [land], not in the Ukrainian sky, they do not defend our people,” Zelensky said. 

“‘I have a dream,’ these words are known to each of you,” the Ukrainian president said, invoking the civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr. “Today, I can say I have a need, I need to protect our skies.”

In addition to calling for more direct military assistance, Zelensky also said that “new packages of sanctions are needed constantly every week,” asking for the U.S. to sanction every politician in Russia.

Zelensky also called on members of Congress to put pressure on businesses in their districts if they remain in Russia and said U.S. ports should be closed to Russian goods. 

“Peace is more important than income, and we have to defend this principle in the whole world,” he said. 

Perhaps the most powerful moment of the speech came when Zelensky played a video that interspersed images of a peaceful Ukraine with graphic footage from nearly three weeks of Russian attacks. The video showed bombs and missiles hitting civilian buildings and dead and injured Ukrainians. 

It contained some of the most jarring images so far captured from the war, including civilians who were caught under Russian fire as they fled the city of Irpin through what was supposed to be a humanitarian corridor, the bombing of a hospital and maternity ward, pregnant women carried out on stretchers and the burying of the dead in a mass grave in Mariupol. 

Zelensky spoke hours before Biden was slated to deliver remarks from the White House during which he is expected to announce plans to send more military assistance to Ukraine. Congress last week passed a bill approving $13.6 billion in additional humanitarian, security and economic assistance to Ukraine, and Biden signed that bill into law on Tuesday. 

The State Department recently announced plans to send $186 million in humanitarian assistance to support Ukrainian refugees. The United Nations estimates that 3 million Ukrainians have fled the country seeking refuge in Europe thus far. 

White House press secretary Jen Psaki signaled Tuesday that Biden was likely to be watching Zelensky’s address, but it’s unclear to what degree he will respond to the speech during his own remarks later Wednesday. 

Zelensky spoke from Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital city, which went under a 35-hour curfew Tuesday night amid an increase in Russian attacks. Still, the road to the city appears under control of Ukrainian forces, and the Russians have encountered more resistance than expected over the past three weeks. 

Three European heads of state, from Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia, visited embattled Kyiv on Tuesday in a show of solidarity with Zelensky and the Ukrainian people. Biden is slated to travel to Brussels next week for a NATO summit and a European Council meeting that will address the crisis. 

Updated at 10:21 a.m.

Tags Jen Psaki Joe Biden Russia Ukraine Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky
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