House and Senate lawmakers on both sides of the aisle are reacting to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s historic address to Congress on Wednesday, where the leader delivered an emotional plea to the United States to implement a no-fly zone over Ukraine and to provide the country with fighter jets to push back against an air assault from Russia.
The U.S. and its Western allies have been hesitant to implement a no-fly zone over Ukraine. White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday said President Joe Biden “continues to believe that a no-fly zone would be escalatory, could prompt a war with Russia.”
After Zelenskyy's speech Wednesday, a growing cohort of lawmakers, largely Republicans, called on the president to send MiG planes to Ukraine.
House Minority Leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in a press conference following Zelenskyy’s speech: “I think there's a bipartisan movement right here. Provide [Ukraine] the MiGs. Provide them the planes where they can create their own no-fly zone, provide them the armament that they need to continue to fight a war that they did not create.”
McCarthy also mentioned a video Zelenskyy showed Congress, which detailed the devastation within Ukraine. Scenes showed millions of individuals fleeing the country, hospital and rescue workers working furiously to save babies and children and bodies of the deceased being thrown into mass graves.
A message written in English played over the screen: “Close the skies to Ukraine.”
“I thought the video was one of the most moving moments in there,” McCarthy said. “It made the case of the murdering of innocent people, that war crimes are being committed, that America and the world cannot sit by and ignore. We need to put a stop to this. I think greater pressure, greater armament and why the MiGs were not provided weeks ago, as many of us requested.”
House Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., similarly said the video offered lawmakers a chance to “see firsthand the sheer brutality of what Putin is doing inside Ukraine."
“It was very difficult to watch. It was heartbreaking,” Scalise added. “But it shows you that there's nothing less than genocide going on in Ukraine by Putin and his army insofar as Zelenskyy 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 be able to defend their country, especially right now to be able to control the sky. And that's why getting these MiGs in immediately is so critical.”
Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., the third-ranking Republican in the House of Representatives, criticized the Biden administration for acting slowly on sanctions and for not yet sending war planes to Ukraine.
"The American people stand strongly with the people of Ukraine,” Stefanik said at a post-speech press conference. “The Ukrainian people need those MiGs, and they need them now. They needed them yesterday."
Indiana Rep. Victoria Spartz, the only Ukrainian-born member of Congress, criticized the Biden administration, telling Spectrum News that the White House needs to be more decisive in its aid to Ukraine.
"They do a lot of talking and discussing," the Indiana Republican told Spectrum News. "It's a war. It's a crisis. Don't do the talk, do more of the walk."
Senate Republicans largely agreed with their House counterparts on the need to send MiG planes to Ukraine.
South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham said he does not support a NATO no-fly zone, adding: “When [President Biden] and his team indicate that that would be an escalation that would involve the potential conflict between NATO members and Russia – he's right.”
“While I oppose a NATO no fly zone, I support enthusiastically the sending of MiG aircraft from Poland to the Ukrainian airport so they can be more competitive in the skies and missile systems that are in abundance that could neutralize the Russian air advantage,” he said, adding: “There is bipartisan support for sending a package that includes fighter jets and air defense systems to the Ukraine immediately so that we can have a Ukrainian no fly zone, manned by Ukrainian pilots, and manned by missile systems in the hands of the Ukrainian military.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, praised Zelenskyy’s address, adding that the U.S. must "fulfill his request" for warplanes immediately.
“Being a world leader does indeed mean we have a responsibility to be a leader of freedom and peace,” Romney said in part. “We must fulfill his request immediately. Get Ukraine the MiGs.”
A few Democrats also supported Zelenskyy’s request for MiG planes, including Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif., who urged the Department of Defense to “allow the MiG transfer and not substitute its judgment for what Zelenskyy has repeatedly said Ukraine needs.”
“President Zelenskyy told the US Congress, again, that his military needs aircraft,” he wrote on Twitter. “[Secretary of State Antony Blinken] had valiantly been trying to get MiGs to Ukraine.”
" I urge [the Defense Department] to allow the MiG transfer and not substitute its judgment for what Zelenskyy has repeatedly said Ukraine needs," Lieu added.
Other Democrats were not as quick to call on the federal government to send war planes to Ukraine. Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., told CNN News he thinks “the support we're giving Ukraine right now is effective,” adding that a no-fly zone might cause more harm than good.
“As Russian airplanes are flying, you have to enforce the no-fly zones zone. So you have to shoot them down, and we can do that. But then we're in a direct combat action with the Russian military. That means we are at war with Russia,” Kelly said. “And at this point, I think it is in the best interest of everybody for us to avoid being at war with Russia.”
Rep. Adam Schiff, D-Calif., had similar reservations about enforcing a no-fly zone, telling MSNBC News: "I think it's still very difficult, for the reason that we would need to bomb Russian air defense systems within Russia. We would be in a shooting war with Russian pilots. And would profoundly risk, essentially, a war between the United States and Russia.”
Schiff went on to detail the actions he thinks the U.S. can take to aid Ukraine, saying President Joe Biden is likely to announce “some of those efforts to supply Ukraine with stronger, more capable, as well as more numbers of these air defense systems” to help shoot down Russian planes.
Biden is expected to announce an additional $800 million in aid to Ukraine during a Wednesday address, which will likely include funds for anti-armor and anti-aircraft weapons, according to a White House official.
A number of Senate Democrats applauded Zelenskyy’s “powerful” and “moving” address, with many saying they stand ready to levy more sanctions against Russia and are in favor of providing both humanitarian and lethal aid to Ukraine – although few mentioned Zelenskyy’s requests for a no-fly zone or for MiG planes.
“President Zelensky's speech was powerful and moving,” Colorado Sen. John Hickenlooper wrote on Twitter. “Putin is waging war against innocents, children, and babies. It’s gut-wrenching. This has to stop.”
California Sen. Alex Padilla also took to Twitter to praise Zelenskyy’s “bravery and resilience.”
“And Congress’s message is clear: we stand with Ukraine,” Padilla added. “I will continue to push to hold Putin accountable and ensure that Ukraine has the resources they need to defend themselves against a senseless and unprovoked invasion.”
“The U.S. stands with President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people,” Nevada Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto wrote on Twitter.
“I’ll continue to work with my colleagues to provide the humanitarian support and lethal aid Ukraine needs to stand up to Russia, and no economic measures should be off the table when it comes to isolating Putin," she added.