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Zelenskyy's plea spurs U.S. lawmakers to consider more help for Ukraine

A no-fly zone over Ukraine remains off the table. But lawmakers expressed interest in additional weapon transfers and escalating sanctions.

WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers said they were deeply affected by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's plea for help on Wednesday as they agonized about how to do more for his country without triggering a full-scale war between the U.S. and Russia.

“Everyone was really moved by the whole thing," said Rep. Elissa Slotkin, D-Mich., a former CIA and Pentagon official who chairs the House intelligence and counterterrorism subcommittee. “His connection between what’s going on in his country and events in American history. Obviously a video that was — I don’t know that there was a dry eye in the House, Democrat or Republican.”

"All of us are just trying to figure out how we do more," Slotkin told NBC News as she walked out of the room in the Capitol where Zelenskyy spoke virtually. "There's more we can do."

Slotkin said she supports Zelenskyy's call for "a steady drumbeat of economic sanctions" targeting Russia. She said the Ukrainian president's call could prompt the U.S. to provide more fighter jets and air defense to fend off the Russian onslaught.

Members of Congress give Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a standing ovation before he speaks in a virtual address to Congress in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center Congressional Auditorium on March 16, 2022.
Members of Congress give Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a standing ovation before he speaks in a virtual address to Congress in the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center Congressional Auditorium on March 16, 2022.Sarahbeth Maney / The New York Times via AP

Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who previously served in the U.S. Army Reserve and Army National Guard, said the Zelenskyy speech "makes me want to throw on my uniform and go help."

Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said transfers of the S-300 missile defense systems could take place soon.

"Everything I hear from our military is that what's much more effective are other air defense systems, including the transfer of the S-300, which would be far more effective and quick. And I think we're moving forward on that," he said.

Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said he favors sending Ukraine MiG-29 fighter jets, which the U.S. has struggled to find a way to transfer.

"S-300s are in, but we need a lot more," McCaul said.

But one move that remained off the table for many lawmakers was Zelenskyy's call for closing the skies over Ukraine — or a no-fly zone.

"It’s hard not to be moved his words. It’s kind of sad because he made a request that I don’t think we can honor, which is the no-fly zone," said Rep. Emanuel Cleaver, D-Mo., who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee. "We shouldn't call it a no-fly zone. We should just call it World War III."

Cleaver said it's a "massive challenge" to strike the right balance between providing military assistance to Ukrainians without provoking a conflict with nuclear-armed Russia.

"We're talking about a megalomaniac on the other side who could very easily decide the nukes are a way out," he said.

Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, said it makes more sense for the West to help Ukraine close its own skies than to be the enforcers by shooting down Russian aircraft.

"I think it’s pretty clear that it’s not a good idea for NATO to be in a combat in the skies with the Russians and shooting at each other. That has the potential really becoming a World War III type scenario," he said. "But we can create safe skies by getting MiGs that are available in Poland to the folks in Ukraine to fly themselves."

Romney expressed interest in Zelenskyy's call for sanctioning members of the Russian assembly.

"I'm sure we'll keep studying more things, sanctioning more people. President Zelenskyy suggested sanctioning each member of the elected officials in Russia — probably a good idea," he said.

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., also kept the door open for additional sanctions.

"He asked us to sanction the Duma — I’m willing to look into that," he said. "If they’re supporting Vladimir Putin, who is a war criminal, we should look for opportunities to bring as much financial hardship and as much sanctions as we can on the Russian government."

Key House and Senate leaders were expected to receive briefings on the situation in Russia and Ukraine later on Wednesday, aides said.

Slotkin said there was some talk after Zelenskyy's address about a limited no-fly zone negotiated between Russia and Ukraine, though she cautioned that was not fully fleshed out.

“There’s a lot of discussion now, even just in the hallways walking out, of what a humanitarian no-fly zone would be. So a negotiation between Russians and Ukrainians on a humanitarian corridor that’s enforced by more than just the goodwill of the Russians," she said.

Slotkin said she planned to visit the White House later on Wednesday and offer her advice directly to President Joe Biden.