Despite emotional speech, unclear if Zelenskyy moved the needle on fighter jets, no fly zone

Sen. Coons: ‘Somber’ mood as Zelenskyy addressed Congress

Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., said Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a "very effective emotional appeal" to Congress in Wednesday’s address.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy implored Congress Wednesday to implement a no-fly zone in Ukraine and provide fighter jets to his military – but it’s not clear his emotional appeal will have its desired effect.

“I have been deeply affected by President Zelenskyy’s repeated and forceful requests to the United States for assistance,” Sen. Chris Coons. D-Del., who sits on the Foreign Relations Committee, said when asked about implementing a no-fly zone at Zelenskyy’s request. “That’s partly why I work so hard to secure a $13.6 billion in additional military and humanitarian aid.” 

Coons added that Javelin and Stinger missiles will be “critical” to Ukraine’s defense. But, he said, “a no-fly zone is not militarily feasible without huge escalatory risk. The simple point is this to enforce a no-fly zone, that would mean American, or at least certainly NATO’s pilots, shooting down Russian jets piloted by Russians. There is a serious risk of escalation as a result.”

In this image from video provided by the House Television, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks from Kyiv, Ukraine, as he addresses virtually addresses Congress on Wednesday, March 16, 2022.
(House Television via AP)

Nearly all U.S. lawmakers and officials are against any kind of no-fly zone over Ukraine. If the U.S. made such a move, they say, it would have to enforce that – which would mean American or NATO planes shooting down Russian planes. 

But debate’s raged for over a week in Washington over whether to assist in the delivery of Polish MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine. 

“I admire him,” Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., who appeared to have been crying, said of Zelenskyy’s speech. “My heart goes out to what’s going on. I wish our president would move. We need to get the planes there. We need to get more anti-aircraft equipment there. We need to get more support.”

But other congressional allies of President Biden’s were more circumspect when asked about what more the U.S. should do. 

“He asked for additional sanctions. I think we’re running out of things to do. But we should continue to look to put the maximum amount of pressure on Vladimir Putin and the people who work for him,” Sen. Mark Kellly, D-Ariz., said. 

“So we’ve just given Ukraine an additional $15 billion in aid, both humanitarian and military help,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren. D-Mass., said Wednesday, when asked how far the U.S. should go in helping Ukraine. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy delivers a virtual address to Congress by video at the Capitol in Washington, Wednesday, March 16, 2022. 
(Sarah Silbiger, Pool via AP)

“We will continue to give them more help, as they need it,” she added. “We want to make sure that they have the Javelins and the Stingers and the other weapons to fight back to protect their airspace..”

“Well, we just approved $14 billion in our spending package,” Rep. Cheri Bustos, D-Ill., said. “We’ve never given this kind of money to a non-NATO country. So I mean, we are we’re doing everything we can.”

“I think he also presented an alternative that give the Ukrainian people what they need to do this defense,” Assistant House Speaker Katherine Clark, D-Mass., said of Zelenskyy’s no-fly zone request. 

But there’s growing calls, including from some Democrats like Sens. Tim Kaine, D-Va., Robert Menendez, D-N.J., and Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., demanding that the White House at least assist Ukraine with fighter jets. 

In this image from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office and posted on Facebook Tuesday, March 15, 2022, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks in Kyiv, Ukraine. 
(Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Bipartisan pressure has worked before to change the White House’s stance on issues related to Russia and Ukraine. After the initial invasion, members of both parties called for stronger sanctions – then the White House issued them. The White House was initially adamantly against banning the import of Russian oil – then it did exactly that after it was clear Congress was going to pass a bill to that effect. 

Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, led a group of several GOP senators calling for the administration to help provide fighter jets to Ukraine Wednesday. 

“We need to be more creative and quickly in providing the Ukrainians what they need,” Portman told reporters. “This does mean anti-aircraft weapons, this does mean planes, this does mean drones.”

Portman added: “The fight for freedom is being waged right now in Ukraine. In many respects it’s our fight.”

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