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Zelenskyy Asks Congress For Planes, Air Defense Systems

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleaded with the U.S. Congress to “close the sky” to prevent the Russian airstrikes that are devastating his country as he appealed to lawmakers to do more to help Ukraine’s fight against Russia.

“Russia has turned the Ukrainian skies into a source of death for thousands of people,” Zelenskyy said.

The actor-turned-wartime leader was greeted with a standing ovation before delivering a virtual address to lawmakers.

Zelenskyy’s address Wednesday into the U.S. Capitol is the president’s latest video speech as he uses the West’s great legislative bodies as a global stage to orchestrate support against Russia’s crushing invasion.

“I have a dream—these words are known to each of you. Today I can say, I have a need. I need to protect our sky,” Zelenskyy said.

Zelenskyy asked for aircrafts and air defense systems “to help Ukraine” if a no-fly zone isn’t possible. He also said the U.S. must sanction Russian lawmakers and block imports, and he showed a packed auditorium of U.S. lawmakers an emotional video of the destruction and devastation in his country has suffered in the war.

“We need you right now,” Zelenskyy said. He added, “I call on you to do more.”

Nearing the three-week mark in an ever-escalating war, Zelenskyy has used his campaign to implore allied leaders to “close the sky.” It’s a singular request and now a rallying cry in popular culture. It has also put Zelenskyy at odds with President Joe Biden, whose administration has stopped short of providing a no-fly zone or the transfer of military jets from neighboring Poland as the U.S. seeks to avoid a direct confrontation with Russia.

Instead, Biden will deliver his own address following Zelenskyy’s speech, in which he is expected to announce an additional $800 million in security assistance to Ukraine, according to a White House official familiar with the matter. That would bring the total announced in the last week alone to $1 billion. It includes money for anti-armor and air-defense weapons, according to the official, who was not authorized to comment and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Appearing in his now trademark army green T-shirt as he appeals to world leaders, the boyish but unshaven Zelenskyy has emerged as a heroic figure at the center of what many view as the biggest security threat to Europe since World War II. Almost 3 million refugees have fled Ukraine, the fastest exodus in modern times.

Invoking Shakespeare’s hero last week, he asked the British House of Commons whether Ukraine is “to be or not to be.” On Tuesday, he appealed to “Dear Justin” as he addressed the Canadian Parliament and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Zelenskyy called on European Union leaders at the start of the war to do the politically unthinkable and fast-track Ukraine’s membership — and he has continued to push for more help to save his young democracy than world leaders have so far pledged to do.

”I know he will ask for more help,” said Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass.

Biden has insisted there will be no U.S. troops on the ground in Ukraine and has resisted Zelenskyy’s relentless pleas for warplanes as too risky, potentially escalating into a direct confrontation with nuclear-armed Russia.

“Direct conflict between NATO and Russia is World War III,” Biden has said.

U.S. defense officials, for their part, say they are puzzled by Zelenskyy’s demand for more warplanes. They say Ukraine isn’t often flying the planes it has now, while making good use of other weapons the West is providing, including Stinger missiles for shooting down helicopters and other aircraft.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy received standing ovations on Tuesday while addressing the British Parliament about Russia’s ongoing invasion, which Ukrainian leadership says has left hundreds of civilians dead.

While officials are anticipating that Zelenskyy may once again call on the U.S. and the West for fighter jets or help establishing a no-fly zone. Ukraine has also asked for — and the Biden administration is considering — U.S.-made killer drones that could accurately hit Russian tanks and other targets from miles away, a pair of congressional officials briefed on the matter told NBC News.

Even though Zelenskyy and Biden speak almost daily by phone, the Ukrainian president has found a potentially more receptive audience in Congress.

This won’t be the first time he has appealed directly to members of the House and Senate, who have remained remarkably unified in their support of Ukraine with some feeling they have made a commitment to do as much as they can in the fight against Russia. Nearly two weeks ago, Zelenskyy delivered a desperate plea to some 300 lawmakers and staff on a private call that if they could not enforce a no-fly zone, at least send more planes.

“We think the United States needs to do more,” said Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., returning from a weekend visit with other lawmakers to Poland.

Congress has already approved $13.6 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine, and the newly announced security aid will come from that allotment, which is part of a broader bill that Biden signed into law Tuesday. But lawmakers expect more aid will be needed.

President Joe Biden will travel to Brussels, Belgium, for a NATO summit on Ukraine next week.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said Zelenskyy asked for help in rebuilding his country when they spoke last week.

It was in that call that Zelenskyy asked for the opportunity to address the U.S. Congress, something the Democratic leader readily agreed to.

“The Congress, our country and the world are in awe of the people of Ukraine,” said Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer in a statement Monday announcing the address.

They said Congress “remains unwavering in our commitment to supporting Ukraine as they face Putin’s cruel and diabolical aggression.”

Zelenskyy’s next stop could be Spain. The speaker of Spain’s Congress of Deputies has invited the Ukrainian president to address Spanish lawmakers via videolink.

In a letter to Zelenskyy, Speaker Meritxell Batet wrote that the address “will be a magnificent opportunity for the chamber, all Spanish people and the thousands of Ukrainians living in Spain to listen to your message and express our firmest support.”

Associated Press writers Aamer Madhani, Ellen Knickmeyer and Chris Megerian and Raf Casert in Brussels, Jill Lawless in London, Aritz Parra in Madrid and videojournalist Rick Gentilo contributed to this report.

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