Mar 16, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Zelensky's speech rekindles congressional no-fly talk

President Zelensky is seen waving to Congress during his virtual address on Wednesday.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky waves during his virtual address to Congress. Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

President Volodymyr Zelensky's impassioned pleas Wednesday rekindled congressional talk of supporting a no-fly zone over Ukraine.

Why it matters: While most members of Congress still maintain having the U.S. and NATO enforce such a zone would drag Americans into a superpower conflict with Russia, the openness of a few members to consider various options for air involvement represented a shift in tone from recent days.

What they're saying: "I wouldn't say [a no-fly zone] is off the table," House Democratic Caucus Chairman Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) told Axios while leaving the auditorium where members watched Zelensky's virtual address.

  • Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees, made the case for a limited humanitarian no-fly zone over a part of the country.
  • He also advocated for using non-kinetic ways to enforce a no-fly zone.
  • "We can ground airplanes without ever firing a shot. Now I'm sure one of the factors is that they don't want to front that technology ... but the technology does exist, and we can do it."
  • Fitzpatrick specified in a later interview "we have to jam MAV systems and jam radar, you can ground aircraft without kinetic strikes," adding, "There's more to the story than just 'no-fly zone means WWIII.'"

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) told Axios he's intrigued by a Wall Street Journal op-ed proposing an international humanitarian airlift as an alternative.

  • It would involve countries not viewed as hostile to Russia — Brazil, Egypt, India and the United Arab Emirates — flying planes full of humanitarian goods into Ukraine.
  • He started pitching the idea to his colleagues as they streamed out of the auditorium.
  • "I just think it's not all-or-nothing," Wicker said. "There are a myriad of nuanced ways to protect Ukraine from indiscriminate bombing of civilians."

During his remarks, Zelensky invoked the Pearl Harbor and 9/11 attacks in asking Americans to empathize with the daily onslaught Ukrainians face amid Russia's invasion.

  • He also played a graphic video showing the destruction of his country, including the targeting of children.
  • He closed his remarks by addressing the members in English.

Some stopped short of calling for international involvement in Ukraine's airspace.

  • Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) highlighted a slew of other actions the U.S. could take — supplying planes and more weaponry, closing all ports to Russian imports and sanctioning all leaders of Russia in addition to oligarchs.
  • Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), a veteran who's feverishly pushed Congress and the Biden administration to send fighter jets and military aid, spelled out why a no-fly zone could not be implemented.
  • "We can't because we can't directly engage with Russia. That's a whole other level that does set up a much more widespread conflict."

The big picture: President Biden on Tuesday signed into law a bill that includes $13.6 billion for assistance to Ukraine.

  • He was expected to announce an additional $800 million in military aid in remarks a few hours after Zelensky's.
  • Even Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), who's previously resisted increasing U.S. defense spending, is prepared for the Biden administration to allocate even more money to Ukrainian military aid.
  • "We will continue to give them more help," she said. "We want to make sure that they have Javelins and Stingers and the other weapons to fight back."

Editor's note: Updates with comment from Rep. Fitzpatrick.

Go deeper