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Biden calls Putin a 'war criminal,' commits to new military aid to Ukraine

But the president did not announce actions that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy requested in his virtual address to Congress.

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced an additional $800 million in military support for Ukraine after its president pleaded with Congress to do more to help it defend itself against the military onslaught from Russia.

Speaking at the White House, Biden said the new aid package would drastically increase the amount of military support going to Ukraine to include 800 anti-aircraft systems, 9,000 anti-armor systems, 7,000 small arms like shotguns and grenade launchers, as well as drones and other military equipment.

"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, unethical attacks on civilian populations," Biden said. "We are united in our abhorrence of Putin’s depraved onslaught. And we’re going to continue to have their backs as they fight for their freedom, their democracy, their very survival."

The added assistance brings the total authorized by Biden to $2 billion since the start of his presidency.

Biden did not commit to the actions that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had requested in his remarks to Congress earlier Wednesday, including a no-fly zone over Ukraine to deter Russian bombers that have hit hospitals, schools and residential buildings, as well as fighter jets — two measures the U.S. has repeatedly rejected.

"I have a need. I need to protect our sky. I need your decision, your help," Zelenskyy told Congress. "Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace."

Biden watched Zelenskyy's speech from his private library and thought the Ukrainian president "was passionate, was powerful," said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

She said that nothing that Zelenskyy called for was a surprise to the White House, given the close contact the administration has had with Ukrainian officials, but that the U.S. stands by its opposition to a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

"If we were President Zelenskyy we would be asking for everything possible as well, and continuing to ask for it, because he is watching his country and his people be attacked and brutalized by President Putin and the Russian military," Psaki said.

She added that Biden was guided by U.S. national security interests that would be challenged by the implementation of a no-fly zone. "It would require us potentially shooting down Russian planes — NATO shooting down Russian planes — and we are not interested in getting into World War III," she added.

But Biden's language on Putin did go further Wednesday than it has in the past. When asked as he was leaving an event at the White House whether he was ready to call Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal, Biden responded, "no." He later came back, asked reporters to repeat the question, and said: "I think he is a war criminal."

The White House has been facing pressure from Congress to increase its support for Ukraine, with several members saying they were extremely moved by Zelenskyy’s remarks and agonized about how to do more for his country without triggering a full-scale war with Russia.

"It makes me want to throw on my uniform, you know, and go help," said Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, who served in the U.S. Army Reserve and Army National Guard. "I know we’re helping how we can here. But I think many of us feel helpless. There’s just a lot more that we can be doing and I think we should be doing and this administration needs to tell President Zelenskyy we’re sending you whatever aircraft you need."

Included in the aid package announced Tuesday are 100 grenade launchers, 5,000 rifles, 1,000 pistols, 400 machine guns, and 400 shotguns, the White House said. The U.S. will also provide more than 20 million rounds of small arms ammunition and grenade launcher and mortar rounds along with 25,000 sets of body armor and 25,000 helmets.

Biden said there would be more assistance in the future.

"The United States and our allies and partners are fully committed to surging weapons of assistance to the Ukrainians and more will be coming as we source additional stocks of equipment that we’re ready to transfer," he said.

The White House also sought to emphasize the amount of support the administration has already sent to Ukraine, including over 600 Stinger anti-aircraft systems, 2,600 Javelin anti-armor systems, 200 grenade launchers and ammunition, 200 shotguns and 200 machine guns, and nearly 40 million rounds of small arms ammunition and more than 1 million grenade, mortar, and artillery rounds.

Biden signed a government funding bill Tuesday that included $13.6 billion in military and humanitarian assistance for Ukraine on top of the $1.2 billion the U.S. has already provided to Ukraine military forces and in the past few weeks the U.S. provided nearly $300 million in humanitarian assistance. 

NBC News reported that the U.S. is also considering providing Ukraine with U.S.-made killer drones — cutting-edge guided missiles that could accurately target Russian tanks and artillery positions from miles away — according to two congressional officials briefed on the matter.

Along with military equipment, the U.S. has been airlifting emergency relief supplies into staging positions in the region, including high thermal blankets, water treatment equipment, soap and safe drinking water. 

The steps by the U.S. come as the war enters its fourth week and Russia ups its assault on the capital, Kyiv, where Mayor Vitali Klitschko imposed a 35-hour curfew Tuesday after Russian missile strikes destroyed apartment buildings and caused deaths.