Zelenskyy spoke remotely via a video feed and told U.S. lawmakers that he was addressing them from Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital city that has for weeks been the target of Russian military strikes. Members of the House and Senate gathered together to hear Zelenskyy, who personally requested the opportunity to address them, in the Capitol Visitor Center’s congressional auditorium.
The Ukrainian president invoked Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous civil-rights-era “I Have a Dream” speech, calling again for a no-fly zone above his nation.
“I have a dream. These words are known to each of you today,” Zelenskyy said. “I can say, I have a need. I need to protect our sky. I need your help.”
The speech hit lawmakers hard, with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer dubbing it “powerful” and Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) withholding comment to gather himself: “I’m going to think about it before I talk. It was emotional.”
And even on the heels of congressional approval of $14 billion in assistance for Ukraine, there was a sense among both parties that the United States had to do more to help its ally.
“Such a powerful request and plea,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio). “The options are just terrible. The best hope at this point is that we contain [Putin] somehow and minimize the suffering vs. escalation into World War 3.”
But the Biden administration remains unwilling to go forward with the implementation of a no-fly zone over Ukraine, a move the White House has said could draw NATO into a broader war with Russia. A plan to send fighter jets to Ukraine by way of a U.S. base in Germany was also scrapped over fears of escalation.
Even after Zelenskyy’s speech, there remains a bipartisan consensus on the Hill that that a no-fly zone is a bad idea.
Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) said that for the United States “it makes a lot of sense right now to figure out how we can help the Ukrainians secure their skies” — rather than aerial defenses enforced by other nations.
“We need to give him more defense mechanisms. He kept saying no-fly zone. I think that’s probably still a non-starter,” said Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.). “That doesn’t mean we can’t up the amount, do more with equipment and drones and other things that would be just as helpful.”
Nonetheless, Zelenskyy emphasized the need for a no-fly zone multiple times in his remarks. He showed a 2 1/2-minute video of war footage from several Ukrainian cities. At the conclusion of the video, a black screen with white letters was shown: “Close the sky over Ukraine.”
“If this is too much to ask, we offer an alternative,” Zelenskyy said, pleading for aircraft and missile defense systems. In addition, he asked for a new package of sanctions against Russia “every week” until “the Russian military machine stops.”
Inside the congressional auditorium where lawmakers gathered for the address, Democrats and Republicans alike were captivated by Zelenskyy’s appeals for additional help, nodding often when he asked for specific weaponry. Zelenskyy put his fist over his heart when lawmakers gave him a standing ovation.
Lawmakers shook their heads in horror at the video he played showing Ukrainian cities getting obliterated by Russian shelling. Rep. Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) could be heard muttering “Jesus.” Other members of Congress wiped away tears and looked away from the screen at some of the more gruesome moments.
An emotional Speaker Nancy Pelosi called the video “overwhelming,” describing Russian actions as “war crimes right before our eyes.”
Notably, she acknowledged Zelenskyy’s plea for a no-fly zone and said she appreciated that he presented other options “if you can’t do that.”
Asked about whether the U.S. should have more talks about direct aerial defense help for Ukraine, Pelosi said the House was already planning to vote on more legislation targeting Russia this week.
Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S. , was in the audience with lawmakers and told reporters afterward that “we will prevail, and we will not surrender.”
She also alluded to the difficulty of securing the direct aerial support Zelenskyy pushed: “With the support from all of our friends and allies, especially with the support in anti-aerial defense, regardless of what form it’s going to be, we will save more lives, and we will prevail faster.”
This was Zelenskyy’s second meeting this month with Congress — a governing body in which the Ukrainian president enjoys wide, bipartisan respect and admiration. Around 300 lawmakers joined a private Zoom call with Zelenskyy on March 5 in which the Ukrainian leader asked for more military assistance and a ban on Russian oil.
The White House and Congress have worked to meet those demands: Congress approved nearly $14 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine last week, double the original figure requested by President Joe Biden. And the U.S. has ramped up sanctions on Russian oligarchs and banks and has imposed a complete ban on Russian oil, energy and gas imports.
After delivering the bulk of his speech via a translator, Zelenskyy switched to English after the video of war footage and addressed Biden directly.
“You are the leader of your great nation,” Zelenskyy said. “I wish you to be the leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.”
His address touched all corners of Congress. Senate Chaplain Barry Black opened the day’s legislating with this prayer: “We trust you to deliver to the Ukrainian people. Save them from those who shoot from the shadows.”
Sarah Ferris contributed reporting.