Zelenskyy pleads with Congress, Biden for more air defense weapons in war with Russia

Ukrainian president repeats request for no-fly zone, offers other air defense ideas

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the U.S. Congress by video on Wednesday.  (J. Scott Applewhite-Pool/Getty Images)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to the U.S. Congress by video on Wednesday. (J. Scott Applewhite-Pool/Getty Images)
Posted March 16, 2022 at 12:29pm

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy directly pleaded to lawmakers and the White House during an address to Congress on Wednesday to quickly send weapons capable of defending his country’s skies from Russia’s missile and aerial attacks.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine three weeks ago, Zelenskyy has become immensely popular on the world stage. His morale-boosting and impassioned speeches denouncing the Kremlin have fired up his fellow Ukrainians, as well as Europeans, Americans, Canadians and others.

Calling upon those reserves of goodwill and admiration, Zelenskyy — clad in one of the short-sleeve olive green T-shirts he has become well known for since the invasion — urged lawmakers to think of the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor and to remember the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks when they think of the daily devastation that Ukrainians are experiencing from Russian missile attacks and artillery barrages.

And then he repeated his ask for the United States to lead NATO in creating a “humanitarian no-fly zone” over 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,” said Zelenskyy, speaking from Kyiv through a translator.

The Biden administration has ruled out establishing a no-fly-zone over Ukraine, arguing it would necessitate shooting down Russian fighter jets — placing NATO and the United States in direct military conflict with the world’s largest nuclear weapons holder.

Likewise, the Pentagon has also nixed a Polish government proposal to have the U.S. military take custody of Warsaw’s Soviet-era MiG fighter planes and then provide them to the Ukrainians. The Defense Department contends there are better options for providing Ukraine with anti-aircraft firepower that come with less risk of resulting in a direct military confrontation between the United States and Russia.

Seemingly aware of the high bar he was setting in his defense assistance requests, Zelenskyy also offered a broad range of other air defense alternatives for the U.S. to provide.

“Is this a lot to ask for, to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people? If this is too much to ask, we offer an alternative. You know what kind of defense systems we need: S-300 and others,” the Ukrainian president said. “The ability to use aircraft, powerful aviation to protect our people, our freedom, our land; aircraft that can help Ukraine, help Europe.”

Very few U.S. lawmakers have joined Zelenskyy in calling for a no-fly zone.

Describing Zelenskyy’s speech as “magnificent,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said lawmakers in the audience at the Capitol Visitor Center Congressional Auditorium who watched a video the president played of the humanitarian toll from the war were “anguished.”

“Requests to shut down the skies, it’s compelling,” Blumenauer said. “But I think every one of us are deeply concerned about this spiraling into all-out war.”

Still, many Republicans and some Democrats are supportive of Kyiv’s requests for the United States to facilitate the transfer of older-generation aircraft to Ukraine. And there is widespread support for providing Ukraine with more anti-aircraft and anti-missile systems.

A few hours after Zelenskyy addressed U.S. lawmakers, Biden announced a new $800 million assistance package for the war-torn country that includes 800 anti-aircraft missiles, 9,000 anti-armor systems, 7,000 firearms, 20 million ammunition rounds and sophisticated drone aircraft.

House Foreign Affairs member Tom Malinowski, D-N.J., said he thought Zelenskyy made an astute appeal to Congress and the American people that avoided partisan call-outs, was unifying and was appreciative of steps the U.S. has already taken in support of Ukraine but that made “appropriate” requests to do more, framed in an achievable way.

“I always felt like the no-fly zone, that the point of the no-fly zone request is to make us feel guilty that we can’t do the no-fly zone so that we work even harder on everything that we can do,” Malinowski, a top human rights official at the State Department during the Obama administration, told reporters. “And he led with the S-300, which shows a degree of realism that I really respect because that is not only more possible, but that actually is a much more effective way of achieving his goal of clearing the skies.”

The lawmakers’ reactions come as a Monmouth University poll released Wednesday showed 69 percent of surveyed Americans support sending more U.S. military troops to Eastern Europe to deter Russian President Vladimir Putin from further stepping up the conflict. But only 41 percent support putting American military boots on Ukrainian soil.

The S-300 is a Russian-made anti-aircraft and anti-missile system that is popular in former Warsaw Pact countries in Eastern Europe because of its relative affordability and effectiveness. Some more modern versions have the capability to counter ballistic missiles as well as cruise missiles.

On Tuesday, President Joe Biden signed into law a fiscal 2022 omnibus spending measure that includes $13.6 billion in emergency aid for Ukraine. That funding includes $3.5 billion the Pentagon can use to quickly send weapons to Ukraine from existing U.S. military stockpiles, as well as $650 million administered by the State Department for Ukraine to purchase American-made weapons.

“The president specifically asked today for help to close the skies, and if it’s not a no-fly zone, then give them the ability to protect themselves,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, told reporters after the speech. He said Congress should look for “creative” ways to get Ukraine the firepower it is asking for and to do that before the United States loses the ability to transfer weapons to the embattled country due to Russia cutting off border access.

“We need to figure this out; we need to be creative,” said Portman, who chairs the Senate Ukraine Caucus. “There are various anti-missile, anti-aircraft systems in the region that can be effective. The S-300 system is one. They know how to use it.”

A new survey by the Pew Research Center found that three weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, more Americans approve (47 percent) than disapprove (39 percent) of the Biden administration’s approach to the war. But a larger portion of surveyed adults (42 percent) want the United States to increase its defense support to Ukraine than those (roughly one-third) who believe that Washington is providing the right amount of support.

Zelenskyy also called for the United States to continue imposing sanctions on Russia, including on rank-and-file Russian politicians and local government officials.

“New packages of sanctions are needed constantly, every week until the Russian military machine stops,” he said, also calling for the closure of American ports to Russian goods. “All American companies must leave Russia … leave their market immediately, because it is flooded with our blood.”

In the Monmouth survey, 81 percent of Americans said they support sanctions that have been imposed on Moscow — but only 25 percent said the economic penalties are having a “major impact” on Putin.

Zelenskyy initially had a bumpy start with Republicans after former President Donald Trump in 2019 tried to coerce him into opening a politically motivated investigation into the Biden family’s Ukraine business ties in exchange for releasing hundreds of millions of dollars in congressionally directed security assistance.

But Zelenskyy kept his head down and managed to avoid becoming a partisan lightning rod during Trump’s subsequent House impeachment and Senate trial.

Zelenskyy also thanked lawmakers for adopting a resolution that condemns the Russian government and Putin for committing alleged war crimes against Ukrainians. The resolution was adopted by voice vote in the Senate on Tuesday.

Avery Roe contributed to this report.