Zelensky’s ‘Churchillian’ speech wows Congress – but most still think a no fly zone is a bridge too far

‘We need to get them planes ... I don’t give a s*** how we get them,’ says one Democrat

John Bowden
Capitol Hill
Thursday 17 March 2022 05:14
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'Our country experiences the same every day’: Zelensky asks Americans to remember Pearl Harbour and 9/11

Ukraine’s president spoke to Congress in a rare, historic early-morning address on Wednesday and delivered an impassioned plea for more western assistance in his country’s effort to fight off a Russian invasion.

During his speech, Volodymyr Zelensky reiterated his desire for President Joe Biden and other leaders of Nato nations to institute a no-fly-zone throughout Ukraine’s airspace, which would be aimed at preventing Russian airstrikes on Ukraine’s civilian centres.

"To create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people, is this too much to ask?" he pressed the assembled lawmakers.

"Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people.”

But in conversations with lawmakers after his roughly 10-minute address, it was clear that many in the US see that idea as a step that would draw the US into a direct war with Russia — a prospect for which there is little political attraction on Capitol Hill.

Members of the House praised the president’s speech and reacted to the shocking images of war displayed by Mr Zelensky’s team in a pre-produced media package that accompanied his address. One of the few who did not stop to talk to reporters was speaker Nancy Pelosi, who along with senate majority leader Chuck Schumer announced Mr Zelensky’s impending address in a “Dear Colleague” letter on Monday.

Rep Pramila Jayapal, head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, told a scrum of reporters as she left the speech that there was “incredible support” for Mr Zelensky and his government among the House.

Characterising the mood among other members, the Democrat described a feeling of “pride for what the United States has already provided” to Ukraine while noting that there was little political will for action that could “provoke World War Three”.

Of a no-fly-zone in particular, which experts have said could lead to a major US-Russia conflict, Ms Jayapal said that Mr Zelensky’s remarks had done little to move the dial.

“I don’t know that that’s changed because of the stakes” at play in Ukraine, Ms Jayapal explained. Another progressive Democrat, Texas Rep Al Green, agreed: “I don’t think there’s an appetite for that right now”.

Other more centrist members of the party held the same position, including Rep Jerry Nadler, head of the Judiciary Committee and a key ally of leadership.

Mr Nadler spoke with The Independent on the issue of future military aid to Kyiv shortly after Mr Zelensky’s remarks and argued that there were other ways to secure the airspace above Ukraine from Russian attacks without getting US or Nato personnel involved.

“[What] we need to do is establish control of the air, which can be better done apparently by anti-aircraft missiles from the ground,” said Mr Nadler, referring to discussions he had engaged in with Ukrainian officials and their US counterparts.

But, he added, “We can’t do a direct shooting war with Russia”, which Mr Nadler asserted could lead to a “nuclear holocaust”.

In general, the main effect of Wednesday’s address by Mr Zelensky appeared to be an emotional appeal to spur the next stage of US action in response to the invasion. There was little talk of acquiescing to Mr Zelensky’s main request for a no-fly-zone, but Democrats and Republicans alike who spoke to reporters after his speech clearly appeared to have been affected by his words. That likely means further bipartisan support for the latest round of military aid – roughly $1bn (£746bn) –  announced by Joe Biden on Wednesday. That aid comes on the heels of nearly $14bn (£10.7bn) in military and humanitarian aid passed last week as part of a government funding package.

Even some Republicans, who have watched conservative commentators and some members of their own caucus openly insult Mr Zelensky and his government, seemed impressed by the Ukrainian leader and the speech on Wednesday. The lone exception was that of Rep Madison Cawthorn, a far-right purveyor of conspiracies who arrived extremely late to the event and only witnessed a minute or two of the president’s remarks.

Russia will target other European countries, warns Zelensky

One establishment-aligned member of the GOP, Rep Tom Cole, talked to The Independent and described the scene as a “Churchillian” moment for Mr Zelensky, who has been transformed into a wartime leader after getting his start as a comedian and actor.

“Anybody ever seen a foreign leader addressing the United States Congress from a combat zone?” he quipped. “A guy that … we know [Russians] tried to assassinate multiple times in the last few weeks?”

“I think people on both sides of the aisle are incredibly moved by it,” added Mr Cole, before noting that the decision to display the gut-wrenching images of the conflict amounted to a “miniature masterpiece” created by Mr Zelensky’s team.

One of the Democrats who appeared most affected by the speech was Rep Tim Ryan, a centrist Democrat and Senate candidate in Ohio who previously challenged Speaker Nancy Pelosi for leadership of the Democratic House caucus. Ohio is a major hub of Ukrainian-American communities in the US, and more than 40,000 Ohioans claim some Ukrainian ancestry.

Mr Ryan spoke to The Independent as his colleagues filed out of the early-morning gathering and called the images displayed to Congress by Mr Zelensky’s team “heartwrenching”.

Ukrainian rescue workers remove debris from a building after a shelling in Kharkiv

The Ohio Democrat did not call for a no-fly-zone but instead broke sharply with the Biden administration and the Pentagon on the issue of supplying Ukraine’s air force with MiG-29 jets, which Mr Zelensky has requested as a concession if his request to close the airspace is not well-received. Mr Ryan has been vocal in his diametric opposition to Russia’s Vladimir Putin amid the latter’s invasion of Ukraine, and has in recent days referred to the Russian president as a “genocidal monster”.

Mr Ryan flatly rejected arguments that the Pentagon have floated in recent days for advising against the sale of Polish jets to Ukraine, which US defence officials have claimed would not significantly boost Ukraine’s capabilities. The Department of Defense was also uneasy about the prospect of such a sale being facilitated through Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

“We need to get them planes,” the congressman plainly asserted. "I don’t give a s*** how we get them [there]”.

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