Six takeaways from Zelensky’s address to Congress and Biden’s response

[ – 2022.03.16] A war-weary Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, speaking from his office in Kyiv, called on the United States to do more to protect his country and people in a dramatic address to American lawmakers Wednesday.

It was an extraordinary appeal to the world’s largest military and financial power at a critical moment. Russian forces are intensifying their assault on Ukraine, including its capital, and the future of the conflict could depend on rushing additional American aid to Ukraine’s beleaguered troops.

Zelensky, wearing stubble and an army-green T-shirt, was speaking as his team is working to negotiate an end to the violence with Russia, talks that haven’t yet produced peace but have shown recent signs of progress.

Speaking directly to the President, in English, Zelensky said as his speech concluded: “Being the leader of the world means being the leader of peace.”

When it was his time to speak, Biden thanked Zelensky for his speech, calling it a “convincing and significant” address.

Here are six takeaways from Zelensky’s address to Congress and Biden’s response:

A request to close the skies over Ukraine

While Zelensky said he was grateful to Biden for his “personal involvement” in confronting Russia, he made clear that Ukraine needs more help from Washington to keep up the fight.

He asked the United States to step up its sanctions against Russia. But the centerpiece of his address was a dramatic appeal for help defending Ukraine from Russian aerial bombardments, including calling for a no-fly zone.

“Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death, for thousands of people,” he said. “I need to protect our sky. I need your help.”

Fully aware that a no-fly zone is something neither Biden nor most members of Congress support, he also offered an “alternative” — new air defense systems that would protect against strikes and new aircraft for his pilots to use in defending its airspace.

“Aircraft that can help Ukraine, help Europe, you know that they exist, and you have them. But they are on Earth, not in Ukrainian sky. They do not defend our people,” Zelensky said.

Biden announces new assistance as he defends US response

Biden inched no closer to agreeing to Zelensky’s biggest requests in his remarks. But he did seek to underscore what the United States has done and announced almost $1 billion in new military assistance, which he called “unprecedented.”

It was an attempt to convey how he was working to help Ukraine defend itself, even as Zelensky and certain US lawmakers press for him to do more.

“The American people are answering President Zelensky’s call for more help, more weapons for Ukraine, more tools to fight Russian aggression,” he said.

Biden ended his speech without making any specific mention of Zelensky’s request for a no-fly zone or fighter jets.

Zelensky appeals to Americans with references to Pearl Harbor and 9/11

Appealing for help for his besieged country, Zelensky harkened to two seismic events in American history: the attack on Pearl Harbor that thrust the US into World War II, and the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, which began a new War on Terror.

“Remember Pearl Harbor, terrible morning of December 7, 1941, when your sky was black from the planes attacking you. Just remember it. Remember September 11th, a terrible day in 2001 when evil tried to turn your cities, independent territories, into battlefields. When innocent people were attacked, attacked from air, just like nobody else expected it, you could not stop it. Our country experiences the same every day. Right now, at this moment, every night for three weeks now,” he said.

Zelensky uses his personal connection to US lawmakers to make his case

Zelensky has already spoken to groups of lawmakers in smaller, private settings, and is fully aware there is broader backing there for some of his asks than in the administration.

Many members of Congress have voiced support for providing Ukraine with Soviet-era fighter jets — a proposition the Biden administration has written off for now, citing logistical challenges and the potential of escalation.

Zelensky has already proven to be effective at swaying American lawmakers. After a Zoom meeting earlier this month in which he appealed for help obtaining MiG fighter jets, Democrats and Republicans both rallied behind the cause — only to see it rejected a few days later by the Pentagon.

Dramatic video shows stark differences in Ukrainian life

Zelensky is a relative newcomer on the political stage; he began as a comedian and television actor. A knowledge of stagecraft is critical in how he addresses the world as his country comes under siege.

A video played toward the end of his speech sought to amplify the emotion of the war, showing images of normal life in Ukraine before the war followed by the stark reality of life there now: bombings, death and fear.

Graphic images like the one in his video are rarely shown in public settings on Capitol Hill, further jolting the gathering to attention. The room was completely silent as it played.

“Today it is not enough to be the leader of the nation. What it takes to be the leader of the world, being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace,” he said.

Biden warns of ‘long and difficult’ battle ahead

Biden’s short speech could not come close to the emotional impact of Zelensky’s, which the US President said he watched from the private White House residence.

But he did attempt to claim a world leader stature after Zelensky directly challenged him to step into the role.

“What’s at stake here are the principles that the United States and the United Nations across the world stand for,” Biden said. “It’s about freedom. It’s about the right of people to determine their own future.”

At the same time, even Biden could not say with any certainty that the military assistance he announced to Ukraine would help bring the conflict to a swift end. Instead, he warned the fighting could persist into the future.

“I want to be honest with you,” he said, “this could be a long and difficult battle.”