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Zelensky lights new fire under Congress — with limits

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers a virtual address to Congress at the U.S. Capitol on March 16, 2022
New York Times/Pool

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s emotional speech to America on Wednesday stirred a new appetite on Capitol Hill for more aggressive steps to counter Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine — with clear limits.

Lawmakers in both parties emerged from the cavernous auditorium in the Capitol where they’d gathered to watch the speech embracing some of Zelensky’s pleas, including those to provide more anti-aircraft weapons and install tougher sanctions on leading Russian figures. 

“My hope is that what comes out of today’s discussion with President Zelensky and all of us working together in a bipartisan basis is to tighten the sanctions immediately, is to provide more armaments that they actually need to defend themselves … and give them a fighting chance to protect themselves,” said Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), the co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus. 

But Zelensky’s call for the United States to help establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine, while receiving a smattering of support, remains a widely unpopular idea, since such a strategy would necessarily pit U.S. and NATO forces directly against those of Russia — a concept President Biden has warned would launch World War III. 

“It remains my view that putting — if that means putting U.S. troops or pilots in Ukraine, I think the answer is no,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said about a no-fly zone.  

“[But] there are other ways to make the air dangerous for the Russians with all kinds of different weapons, dealing with low-flying planes, high-flying planes. We need to get them everything they need to try to prevent carnage from the air. … Anything and everything we need to do,” he added. 

As Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine was poised to enter its fourth week, Zelensky made a plea to the United States to help establish a humanitarian no-fly zone, help deliver Soviet-era S-300 air defense systems to repel Russian air strikes, provide fighter jets and toughen sanctions, applied weekly, to ramp up the economic costs on Russian President Vladimir Putin.  

“Right now, the destiny of our country is being decided, the destiny of our people, whether the Ukrainians will be free, whether they will be able to preserve their democracy,” Zelensky said.  

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

As part of his speech, Zelensky showed a video that interspersed images of Ukraine before the invasion with graphic footage of bombs and missiles hitting civilian buildings and dead and injured Ukrainians. 

Zelensky’s speech came a day after Biden signed off on $13.6 billion in humanitarian and military assistance to Ukraine. The administration has also moved to cut off Russian oil and imposed rounds of sanctions targeting Russian banks, oligarchs and Putin. 

But top lawmakers on Wednesday immediately endorsed slapping more penalties on Russia, including expanding banking sanctions or targeting additional Russian officials.

“I think it’s bipartisan. We ramp up the sanctions even higher,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said.

Sen. Dick Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Senate Democrat and a co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus, said that he was supportive of a “blank check on sanctions.” 

“Just whatever we can do to stop this Russian advance. And if it means all the members of the Duma or any other class, so be it,” he said, referring to Russia’s legislative body.

Lawmakers, even those opposed to direct intervention to create a no-fly zone, said it’s clear that Ukraine needs additional weapons systems. 

“The way this war is evolving, Ukrainians have shown their willingness to fight and to win,” said Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), a former Army Ranger who served in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. “But they need the tools to do that, and they don’t have the right tools yet.” 

Crow rattled off a list of weapons the United States could supply to Ukraine to help counter the Russian siege, including S-300s, anti-ship missiles, howitzers and more radar systems. He’s also pushing to supply Ukrainian forces with fighter jets, an idea that’s been snagged by disagreements over where those planes would originate and how they’d be delivered.

“What Biden needs to do is provide them the MiGs so they can create their own no-fly zone,” said McCarthy, who blamed Biden for the conflict. 

Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he also backed sending planes to Ukraine, saying that the country was currently facing a “reign of terror from the sky” and that the United States could help fix a “military imbalance.” 

“The way to do it is through drones, anti-air defenses and planes,” he said. “Let’s provide the Ukrainians the tools they need to carry on the fight defensively.” 

The Pentagon decided not to go along with a Polish plan to send Ukraine Soviet-era MiG-29 fighter jets, saying that Russia could perceive the transfer as escalatory. That decision has been backed by top congressional Democrats including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who has said that air-defense systems would be more effective. 

Durbin said that he would trust the administration’s belief that sending planes to Ukraine wasn’t “tenable” but backed ramping up sending air-defense systems to Ukraine.  

“He raised both, in fairness … and I’m totally supportive of the missile defense, air-defense, I should say, systems, so I hope that that will be expanded,” he said. 

Even as lawmakers showered praise on Zelensky, who has emerged as an international hero amidst the war and helped unite Congress, there were still clear partisan divisions after his speech.  

“The Republicans in Congress have already been hawkish on Ukraine. We need the president to be more hawkish on Ukraine,” said Rep. Mike Rogers (Ala.), the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee. 

“I mean, this is very bipartisan. The Democratic members of the House — I don’t know about the Senate — but members of the House are just as proactive as we are,” he continued. “I just hope it moves that senile devil we got in the White House.”

McConnell also offered sharp criticism of Biden, saying that comparing him to the Ukrainian president was “depressing.” 

“Our own president needs to step up his game. We’re not doing nearly enough, quickly enough to help the Ukrainians. And I think comparing Zelensky to Biden is depressing,” he said. “President Biden needs to step up his game, right now, before it’s too late.” 

Tags Dick Durbin Jack Reed Jason Crow Joe Biden Kevin McCarthy Mike Rogers Mitch McConnell No-fly zone Rob Portman sanctions Vladimir Putin Volodymyr Zelensky

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