Mar 16, 2022 - World

Zelensky to push U.S. red lines in address to Congress

Ukrainian President Zelensky is seen addressing the Canadian Parliament via videoconference.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky virtually addresses the Canadian Parliament today. Photo: Adrian Wyld/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky asked the Canadian parliament Tuesday to envision waking at 4am to bombs dropping on Ottawa's airport or Toronto's CN Tower. "Justin, can you imagine?" he bluntly asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Why it matters: Zelensky's virtual address to Congress on Wednesday is expected to build on this signature blend of praising, chastising and pleading with his audience to understand the global stakes of Ukraine's resistance.

  • So far, he's succeeded in securing rapid new commitments virtually every time he's addressed Western lawmakers and leaders.
  • Many of those commitments — such as SWIFT and oil sanctions against Russia — had been viewed as inconceivable just days earlier.
  • "I apologize for being sometimes too blunt, but this is our life, and it is thanks to such character traits of our people that we stand firm against the full-scale aggression of the Russian Federation," Zelensky told the U.K.-led Joint Expeditionary Force earlier Tuesday.

Zoom in: Zelensky's speech to the leaders of the U.K., Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden illuminated the policy priorities remaining on his wishlist.

  • They include an embargo on all trade with Russia, a ban on Russian ships accessing the world's ports, a "complete disconnection" of all Russian banks from the SWIFT banking network and recognition of Russia as a "terrorist state."

What they're saying: Zelensky thanked the European allies for providing military support but urged them to do more, saying "the amount you give us per week, we use in 20 hours."

  • Ukraine prevailing over Russia will help "stop the destruction of democracies," Zelensky stressed.
  • "Stop them now, on our land, or they will come to you too. ... Help yourself by helping us."

What to watch: Zelensky's most urgent priority — for the U.S. or NATO to impose a "no-fly" zone over Ukraine — has failed to overcome a red line overwhelmingly supported by Congress.

  • The Biden administration has also rejected Ukraine's request to supply its military with Polish fighter jets, although it continues to face bipartisan pressure to find a way to do so.
  • That pressure was initially triggered by Zelensky's first virtual address to members of Congress on March 5, and could intensify after his second.
  • Meanwhile, the Pentagon is exploring the possibility of sending Ukraine anti-aircraft equipment, but concerns about logistics and the possibility of provoking Russia continue to stand in the way.

The big picture: "Zelensky is going to express gratitude to the U.S. for what it’s done to support Ukraine and punish Russia, but he's also going to name and shame, or at least shame, and rightly so," says Daniel Vajdich, a lobbyist for the Ukrainian energy industry and a non-profit aligned with the Zelensky government.

  • "The U.S. is holding back the delivery of critical air defense weapons to Ukraine right now based on the same philosophy that it pursued immediately prior to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: that giving Ukraine the means to defend itself will provoke Russia and lead to escalation," Vadjich told Axios.
  • "Without naming anyone explicitly, Zelensky will call on these people to wake up before it’s too late."
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