Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded for the US Congress to support a Nato-enforced humanitarian no-fly zone over his country by playing a heartbreaking video with scenes of his country under attack by Russia.
The video entitled “Close the Sky” was broadcasted during Mr Zelensky’s remarks to a special joint session of the House and Senate on Wednesday.
It opened with images of families happily playing before shifting to horrifying clips of corpses being thrown into mass graves, bombs striking apartment buildings, crying children ripped away from their parents, abandoned baby shoes and strollers, and people sobbing over loved ones’ lifeless bodies, with a stirring violin in the background. In the middle of the roughly two-minute video, text on the screen read: “This is a murder.”
The video offered an agonising glimpse of the toll Russia’s attack has taken on Ukraine in a bid to show Congress why urgent action is needed by the US and its allies. In the audience, lawmakers were seen covering their mouths in horror, unable to look away from the atrocities.
US and Nato officials have so far declined Mr Zelensky’s pleas for a no-fly zone over Ukraine because such a measure would place Nato warplanes at risk of direct engagement with Russian aircraft, raising the possibility of a nuclear confrontation.
Nonetheless, in his address to Congress called for a no-fly zone to be established with US support. But he said there was an alternative if a no-fly zone was “too much to ask”.
“You know what kind of defense systems we need — S-300 and other similar systems — you know how much depends on the battlefield on their ability to use aircraft. powerful, strong air aviation to protect our people with freedom, or lend aircraft that can help Ukraine, help Europe,” Mr Zelensky said.
Speaking of the aircraft he wants — Soviet-made MiG-29 fighters currently owned by Nato members that were formerly part of the Warsaw Pact, he told Congress: “You know that they exist and you have them, but they are on earth — not in Ukraine, in the Ukrainian sky. They don’t defend our people”.
“I have a dream,” Mr Zelensky continued, invoking the words of the late civil rights leader Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr.
“These words are known to each of you today. I can say I have a need — I need to protect our sky,” he said. “I need your decision. Your help. Which means exactly the same. The same you feel when you hear the words: ‘I have a dream.’”
‘Remember Pearl Harbor’
Elsewhere in his address, Mr Zelensky called on Americans to remember Pearl Harbor and the September 11 terrorist attacks as they watch the people of Ukraine being attacked and killed by Russian forces.
He told lawmakers that Ukraine “experiences the same every day” now as America did during its own darkest days.
“Remember Pearl Harbor. The terrible morning of December 7 1941 when your skies were black from the planes attacking. You remember it,” he said.
“September 11 - a terrible day in 2001 when evil tried to turn your cities, independent territories in battleground, when innocent people were attacked from air.
“Yes, just like nobody else expected it. You could not stop it.”
In total, 2,403 people including 68 civilians were killed in the surprise aerial attack by Japan on the US’s Pearl Harbor Naval base in Hawaii in 1941.
On September 11 2001, 2,977 people were killed when al-Qaeda terrorists flew four hijacked planes into the World Trade Center in New York City, the Pentagon and one which landed in a field in Pennsylvania.
In the less than three weeks since President Vladimir Putin declared war on Ukraine back on 24 February, at least 636 civilians including 46 children have been killed by Russian forces, according to UN figures.
Ukrainian officials said that at least 1,300 of its troops have been killed.
The true figures are expected to be far higher and there is no sign of the war coming to an end.
Russia is increasingly targeting innocent civilians with schools and maternity hospitals among the sites struck by Russian artillery.
After giving the majority of his speech in Ukrainian, Mr Zelensky concluded with a plea in English.
“Today the Ukrainian people are defending not only Ukraine. We are fighting for the values of Europe and the world, sacrificing our lives in the name of the future,” he said.
Addressing President Joe Biden directly, he added: “You are the leader of the nation. I wish you to be the leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.”
‘Nothing less than a genocide’
Several US lawmakers reacted to the speech by praising Mr Zelensky and condemning Russia’s assault as “nothing less than a genocide” but stopped short of voicing support for a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy – asked whether he supports implementing a no-fly zone – said the US must send MiG jets for Ukraine so officials there can create their own.
“I think right now providing them the MiGs that they can create a no-fly zone,” he told reporters following Mr Zelensky’s address.
“The entire time, speaking with those in Ukraine and the president himself, has never asked for American men and women to be in a battle. All he’s ever asked for is, Give us the opportunity to defend ourselves,” Mr McCarthy said.
He said his advice to President Biden “was provide them armaments earlier to deter Putin from ever making this decision,” he said. “The entire time President Biden always said it would be the sanctions afterwards. Then when the sanctions came he said it would take months to work. The Ukrainian people cannot wait months.”
Referencing the video played by Mr Zelensky, House Minority Whip Steve Scalise said: “You really got to see the sheer brutality of what Putin is doing in Ukraine.”
“But it shows you that nothing less than genocide is going on in Ukraine by Putin and his armym,” he said. Zelensky made a plea to the United States, to President Biden, he’s continued to reiterate that the people of Ukraine just want more tools to defend their country, especially right now to be able to control the sky. That’s why getting these MiGs in immediately is so critical.”
Sen Ben Sasse (R - Nebraska) said: “Zelensky asked President Biden and the United States Congress to do is answer whether we have the courage of our convictions Solinsky needs to win the Ukrainian freedom fighters need to win. We don’t need them just to lose more slowly. We need them to win. And to win, they need to kill Russians. And to kill Russians, they need more weapons.
“The burden of proof is on us about why we wouldn’t supply everything they need. They need more javelins, they need more ammo, they need more stingers. They need more SAMs, they need more airplanes. They need more of everything. And they’re fighting not just for their kids. And their future. They’re fighting for the free world.
“Zelensky has the courage of his convictions. The question he asked the Congress, the United States government is if we have the courage of ours. We’re a superpower. We should act like it.”
Sen Rob Portman (R - Ohio) suggested Ukraine needs more planes and equipment rather than a no-fly zone. “What we should do is be creative figure out ways to facilitate to transfer these weapons into Ukraine immediately. We still have access to the country to be able to do that,” he said. “Before it’s too late, before more people are killed before Kyiv falls before Kharkiv is reduced to rubble, we have to act and act quickly. It’s not a matter of weeks, it’s a matter of hours, days.”
And Rep Jerrold Nadler (D - New York) offered heightened sanctions as the best line of support to Ukraine. “We need to tighten the sanctions ... specifically about broadening the sanctions to governmental officials who are engaged and involved in this in some way or another, including regional officials,” he said.
“My sense is that the American people are ready to do more, that includes being honest about the oil and gas situation right now. The revenues that Russia is getting from oil and gas sales around the world is what’s fueling this war machine. That’s their number one export. And so there’s more we can do there.
“We need to tighten the sanctions on banks include them all in [the ban from Swift], do more in terms of sanctioning individuals, and today I would make a statement to those Russian officials, and to those Russian commanders: ‘You have a choice. War crimes are being recorded. The world is watching. You have a choice. You don’t need to obey these orders to kill your neighbours — innocent civilians in Ukraine.’
Mr Nadler added: “My hope is that what comes out of today’s discussion with President Zelensky, and all of us working together on a bipartisan basis, is to tighten the sanctions immediately; to provide more armaments that they actually need to defend themselves — particularly from these bombardments that are happening nightly — and give them a fighting chance to protect themselves.”
The Independent has a proud history of campaigning for the rights of the most vulnerable, and we first ran our Refugees Welcome campaign during the war in Syria in 2015. Now, as we renew our campaign and launch this petition in the wake of the unfolding Ukrainian crisis, we are calling on the government to go further and faster to ensure help is delivered. To find out more about our Refugees Welcome campaign, click here. To sign the petition click here. If you would like to donate then please click here for our GoFundMe page.
Join our commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies