WASHINGTON — Emotional federal lawmakers left Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s personal appeal for aid promising to do more to help Ukraine, while at the same time acknowledging the US cannot get directly involved or grant his request of a no-fly zone.
“I was crying,” Sen. Joni Ernst said. “I just think it’s very heartbreaking what the Ukrainians are going through. It’s not just the loss of life, it’s the potential loss of an entire country.”
Lawmakers expressed an outpouring of sympathy for Zelensky and the Ukrainian people after the meeting. There was near-unanimous support for aiding Ukraine as much as possible, but disagreement about how far that should extend. There is bipartisan agreement that Zelensky’s request for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine remains off the table due to the risk of sparking a nuclear war with Russia.
“There’s no way that you can’t come out of that meeting without contemplating what more the United States can do to help,” said Sen. Chris Murphy. “I think there’s a host of things we can continue to do to help that doesn’t involve a potential nuclear war between the US and Russia.”
In his short virtual address, Zelensky urged Congress and the White House to ramp up sanctions on Russia and aid to Ukraine, with pleas separate from the request for a no-fly zone. And he asked for a new agreement between nations — “a union of responsible countries” — to head off attacks like this in the future.
“We are fighting for the values of Europe and the world, sacrificing our lives in the name of the future,” Zelensky said in English. “That's why today, the American people are helping not just Ukraine, but Europe and the world, to keep the planet alive. To keep justice in history.”
Rep. Tom Malinowski said Zelensky is fully aware that the US cannot enforce a no-fly zone due to the risk of escalation and that his speech to Congress was perfectly crafted to apply pressure for other measures.
Those other measures could include sending surface-to-air missile systems or facilitating the transfer of Polish fighter jets to Ukrainian forces. There are reports that the former is already happening.
“I always felt that the point of the no-fly zone request is to make us feel guilty that we can’t do the no-fly zone so that we work harder on everything that we can do. It’s brilliant. It’s exactly what he should be doing,” Malinowski said.
Republicans left the meeting calling for the White House to accept a proposal from Poland to facilitate the transfer of 28 Polish MiG-29 fighter planes to the Ukrainian Air Force. The Biden administration rejected this proposal as not tenable because it risked escalating tensions between Russia and NATO and expanding the war beyond Ukraine’s borders.
Republicans are generally more dismissive of that risk, given that the US is already providing Ukraine with lethal aid. “Quite frankly, we sent them stinger missiles that the Ukrainians are currently using to shoot helicopter pilots in the face,” said Sen. James Lankford.
Democrats are more torn. Some are open to the fighter planes idea, but they also warn about the disastrous consequences that would come from a hot war between Russia and NATO.
“We’re all concerned about how do we stop this short of escalation? It’s a terribly difficult conundrum,” Sen. Sherrod Brown said.
Brown said that the main fear is that Russian President Vladimir Putin would authorize the use of tactical nuclear weapons, possibly sparking a third world war. He said that while sanctions and aid to Ukraine are likely working to contain Russia, that means the continued death of Ukrainian civilians. “These are terrible, terrible choices,” he said.
Sen. Lindsey Graham said he wanted to send the fighter jets despite the apocalyptic risk. “We’re not going to have a nuclear war over this. This is a bluff by Putin,” Graham said. “He may be a murderer but he is not suicidal.”
There were also some small bursts of optimism among lawmakers due to the success that worldwide sanctions have had in crippling Russia’s economy, and how the Ukrainian armed forces have managed to far surpass expectations in terms of repelling Russian invaders.
“There are forces at work here that give me some hope,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer said. “But that’s easy to say from a distance. It’s not my constituents and family that are having bombs rain down on them.”