WASHINGTON — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleaded with Congress on Wednesday for more aggressive measures to help stop the war, including a no-fly zone, showing lawmakers a gripping video of the death and devastation that has beset his country.
His appeal was direct, aimed not just at lawmakers but at President Joe Biden. The graphic video that accompanied his speech showed exploding buildings, dead children and mass graves, and left lawmakers visibly shaken.
“Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace,” Zelenskyy said in his 16-minute virtual address from Kyiv.
"This is a terror that Europe has not seen for 80 years and we are looking for a reply, for an answer, to this terror, from the whole world," Zelenskyy told hundreds of lawmakers who packed an Capitol auditorium. "Is this a lot to ask for? To create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people, is that too much to ask?"
Knowing that the U.S. opposes a no-fly zone, Zelenskyy proposed what he called an "alternative": planes to defend Ukrainian skies from Russian attacks. But the Biden administration has also ruled out sending fighter jets.
"Aircraft, powerful, strong aviation to protect our people, our freedom, our land. Aircraft that can help Ukraine," Zelenskyy said. "You know that they exist, that you have them, but they are on the Earth, not in the Ukrainian sky. They do not defend our people."
Sporting his signature green T-shirt, Zelenskyy also urged Americans to look to their own history in trying to understand what Ukrainians are going through, invoking the “I Have a Dream” speech by Martin Luther King Jr., but also the Pearl Harbor and Sept. 11 attacks.
"Remember Pearl Harbor. The terrible morning of Dec. 7, 1941, when your sky was black from the planes attacking you. Just remember it," Zelenskyy said. "Remember Sept. 11, a terrible day in 2001 when evil tried to turn your cities, independent territories, in battlefields, when innocent people were attacked, attacked from air, yes.
"Just like nobody else expected it, you could not stop it," he continued. "Our country experiences the same every day, right now, at this moment every night for three weeks now.”
Echoing King, Zelenskyy declared: "I have a dream. ... I can say, I have a need, a need to protect our sky. I need your decision, your help, which means exactly the same, the same you feel when you hear the words I have a dream.”
Zelenskyy spoke one day after President Joe Biden signed into law a large spending package that included $13.6 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. At Congress's urging, Biden also ordered a U.S. ban on imports of oil and other Russian energy products on the heels of sanctions that have hobbled Russia's economy and financial institutions.
In his speech, Zelenskyy thanked the U.S. for the recent aid package, but he wants Biden and other world leaders to go further, framing the war as a fight for global democracy and human rights.
"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," Zelenskyy said.
"Russia has attacked not just us, not just our land, not just our cities — it went on a brutal offensive against our values, basic human values."
After Zelenskyy’s address, Biden announced that he has authorized sending Ukraine an additional $800 million in military support, including anti-air systems, shoulder-mounted anti-armor systems, machine guns and grenade launchers. The new assistance means that Biden has authorized a total of $1 billion in military aid for Kyiv just this week.
"Now, I want to be honest, this could be a long and difficult battle," Biden said at the White House, flanked by top officials from the Defense and State departments. But he said Americans would continue to stand by Ukrainians as they fight "for their freedom, their democracy, their very survival.
"We're gonna give Ukraine the arms to fight and defend themselves through all the difficult days ahead," Biden said.
Zelenskyy was invited to deliver the rare war-time address to Congress by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
She introduced Zelenskyy, followed by the words "Slava Ukraini!" which means "Glory to Ukraine!" Lawmakers gave two standing ovations to Zelenskyy, at the beginning and end of his speech.
Many lawmakers were moved to tears by Zelenskyy’s gut-wrenching video of civilians, including small children, being killed by Russian forces.
A solemn Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., spoke to reporters about his grandchildren as he emerged from the gathering. New York Rep. Elise Stefanik, the No. 3 GOP leader who gave birth last year, talked to reporters about being a new mother. And Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, was crying as she left the room.
“It makes me want to throw on my uniform and go help,” said Ernst, who served in Kuwait during the Iraq war.
After the speech, Pelosi walked out of the room escorting Ukrainian Ambassador Oksana Markarova, who said in a brief interview with NBC News that air support “will save more lives,” regardless of whether that comes in the form of a NATO-enforced no-fly zone, allied nations giving planes to Ukraine or both.
Asked whether her country could survive without a no-fly zone, the ambassador replied: “We will prevail and we will not surrender.”
Zelenskyy’s speech, which was livestreamed for the public, comes at a perilous moment for Ukraine. The war, now entering its fourth week, has killed hundreds of Ukrainians and forced nearly 3 million refugees to flee to neighboring countries.
In the capital, Kyiv, Mayor Vitali Klitschko imposed a 35-hour curfew Tuesday after Russian missile strikes destroyed apartment buildings and caused deaths.
Kyiv faces a “difficult and dangerous moment,” Klitschko said.