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Zelensky’s passionate plea to Congress for more help draws praise but little additional support for a no-fly zone

Lawmakers showered Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with applause during his virtual address.J. SCOTT APPLEWHITE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — From Winston Churchill to Nelson Mandela to Angela Merkel, dozens of world leaders have addressed Congress over the decades. But there’s never been a speech quite like the one delivered Wednesday by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Beaming into a Capitol auditorium from his war-stricken nation, touching his heart under his trademark military green T-shirt as lawmakers showered him with standing ovations, Zelensky made an eloquent and emotional appeal for additional help in defending Ukraine from Russia’s invasion.

“In the darkest time for our country, for the whole of Europe, I call on you to do more,” he said in the 18-minute address, which lawmakers watched on a giant video screen. His presentation included a powerful video, set to haunting violin music, juxtaposing Ukraine’s pre-invasion joy and beauty with graphic images of the war’s death and destruction that brought some lawmakers to tears.

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But despite the power of his rhetoric, Zelensky did not appear to move the United States beyond its core military strategy of providing Ukraine with weapons to defend itself while avoiding larger moves, such as establishing a no-fly zone over the country, that could spark a direct confrontation with Russia.

“There’s an enormous amount of support in Congress for President Zelensky and the people of Ukraine,” Senator Elizabeth Warren said afterward. But, she added, “escalating this conflict into a direct Russia vs. the United States, with Ukraine as the battlefield, does not help Ukraine, does not help the people of the United States, and does not make the world any safer.”

President Biden, who watched the speech from the White House, praised Ukrainians’ courage and pledged $800 million more in weapons and other assistance to help them repel what he called Russian President Vladimir Putin’s “brutal” onslaught.

“This could be a long and difficult battle, but the American people will be steadfast in our support of the people of Ukraine in the face of Putin’s immoral and unethical attacks on civilian populations,” Biden said. He stressed that US-provided drones, radar systems, tactical vehicles, and portable air defense systems were already in Ukrainian hands even before this additional round of aid, which includes antiaircraft and antitank missiles.

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Zelensky told lawmakers that he is grateful for all the assistance. But as he did in previous virtual addresses to the British and Canadian parliaments, the actor-turned-politician said Ukraine needs additional protection from Russian missiles. Referencing Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech, Zelensky said his own dream was a no-fly zone.

“Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people,” he told Congress. “Is this a lot to ask for, to create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people? Is this too much to ask?”

Despite the passionate plea, there still appeared to be little appetite in Congress from Democrats or Republicans for a no-fly zone.

“I don’t think that’s the right step at this stage,” said Senator Mitt Romney, a Utah Republican. His GOP colleague from Florida, Marco Rubio, said a no-fly zone would inevitably lead to a US-Russian confrontation.

“The only way to keep warplanes out of the sky is to shoot them down,” he said. “If the US were to shoot down a Russian airplane, they would start shooting down American airplanes.”

Senator Mark Kelly, a Democrat from Arizona, said confrontations with Russian jets were only part of the concern. US pilots also would have to contend with Russian antiaircraft missiles, as he did while flying Navy combat missions during the Persian Gulf War.

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“Flying over Iraq, a couple of Russian surface-to-air missiles shot at me. One blew up next to my airplane. If we were going to have a no-fly zone, you would have to prevent that from happening first,” Kelly said. That would require US missile strikes on Russian air defense sites in Ukraine, part of the reason Kelly continues to oppose a no-fly zone.

To Representative David Cicilline, a Rhode Island Democrat, a no-fly zone would be the equivalent of declaring war on Russia.

“I think both Republicans and Democrats are prepared to provide additional support,” he said after the speech, walking by a small group of antiwar protesters outside the Capitol with signs that read “No Fly Zone=WW3.” “My view is we should give the Ukrainians everything they ask for short of a declaration of war.”

In his speech, Zelensky acknowledged US opposition to the idea and proposed an alternative: “powerful strong aircraft” and air defense systems so Ukraine could establish its own no-fly zone.

But just how far to go in helping Ukraine mount its own air defense is a contentious issue on Capitol Hill.

Republicans have criticized Biden for not being more aggressive in his response to Russia’s invasion. When Zelensky said he was grateful to Biden “for his personal involvement, for his sincere commitment to the defense of Ukraine and democracy all over the world” Democrats applauded. Republicans did not.

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“I think comparing Zelensky to Biden is depressing,” Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell told reporters. “President Biden needs to step up his game right now before it’s too late.”

Some lawmakers have been pushing the administration to deliver Russian-made MiG fighter jets that Poland has offered to Ukraine. The Pentagon nixed the plan last week, saying that risked drawing NATO into the war. Russia has said it would view countries that provide support to Ukrainian aircraft as parties to the conflict.

“I think MiGs definitely should have been provided. I don’t think that a no-fly zone works,” said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican.

Senator Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican, said the transfer of Polish MiGs, which the United States would then replace with F-16s, would send a message to Putin.

“All you have to do is say, ‘OK, you know what, we’re going to allow the transfer of MiGs. We’re going to backfill with F-16s. Putin, take that,’ ” she said. “ ‘Take an F-16 and shove it up your you-know-what.’ "

But Senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat from Connecticut, said Congress shouldn’t be “micromanaging” the US war effort. He praised Zelensky for his speech, but said the United States must look out for its own national security.

“I think it’s OK to acknowledge that while we’re going to give him most of everything he wants, there are going to be things that are going to draw the United States into a conflict that would not be good for our security,” Murphy said.

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Biden did not address Zelensky’s demand for a no-fly zone or for fighter jets, both of which the Pentagon has rejected. Later, he said under questioning by a reporter that he believes Putin is a “war criminal”— a phrase Biden has avoided using in the past.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki said the administration is still against the idea of transferring Polish jets to Ukraine as a potential escalation against Russia. She said that the antiaircraft systems the United States is providing to Ukraine are defensive weapons, unlike the jets, which would be offensive.

And she said the administration understood why Zelensky was asking for a no-fly zone.

“If we were President Zelensky, we would be asking for everything possible as well,” she said. “But how President Biden makes decisions is through the prism of our own national security . . . and we are not interested in getting into World War III.”

Liz Goodwin and Haley Fuller of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at jim.puzzanghera@globe.com. Follow him @JimPuzzanghera.