In an emotional speech to Congress Wednesday night that party leaders compared to the wartime pleas of World War II, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged lawmakers to continue providing weapons and aid to help Ukraine fend off Russia through the winter and beyond.
“You can speed up our victory. I know it,” Zelenskyy said in the address, dressed in his battle fatigues and combat boots on the dais in the House chamber. “Let the world see that the United States are here.”
Throughout his roughly 20-minute speech delivered entirely in English, the Ukrainian president relayed his case for continual support, underscoring his gratefulness for that which has been provided — while saying that it’s not nearly enough.
“Your support is crucial, not just to stand in such a fight, but to get to the turning point to win on the battlefield,” he said, making his case directly to Washington in his first foreign trip since the invasion. “We have artillery, yes. We have it. Is it enough? Quite honestly, not really.”
And judging by the sound of thunderous applause echoing throughout the House chamber, that message was mostly received. Hundreds of lawmakers packed the aisles with all the pomp and circumstance, and even the selfies, of a State of the Union address, many decked in royal blue and yellow blazers and scarves to honor Ukraine. One member, Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.), draped the nation’s flag over her seat, holding it up with the help of other members as Zelensky entered the chamber.
The real test for Zelenskyy, however, sat on the other side of the chamber, where several GOP skeptics — whose party will soon hold House majority — sat stoically throughout the speech, even as their colleagues stood and applauded.
“I don’t think it changed the hearts and minds of anybody,” said Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), the incoming Republican Study Committee chair, moments after the speech. “I think those who are going to just wholeheartedly support Ukraine are gonna continue to do it. People like me, we are gonna continue to stay in the realm of, ‘We got to protect this nation first.’”
Some of that GOP resistance has been made clear this week, as party leaders work to pass a $1.7 trillion omnibus spending bill that includes roughly $45 billion in aid to Ukraine.
“Even in the omni, we’re protecting other nations’ borders and not ours,” Hern said, pointing to other needs such as the southern border in the U.S.
Most members, though, appeared particularly rapt as Zelensky spoke of his suffering nation’s energy shortages during Christmas.
Zelenskyy ended by offering thanks to Biden, the Senate and the House for their financial and military support. “I thank every American family,” Zelenskyy said, just before he unfurled a signed flag — gifted from soldiers in the frontline city of Bakhmut — to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris. Pelosi kissed Zelenskyy’s hand and cheek as she took the token, then held it over her head with help from Harris, as members throughout the chamber whooped and cheered.
Zelenskyy cited Bakhmut, a key city in the Donbas region that he visited Tuesday, as a key area that desperately needs U.S. support. There needs to be enough assistance to ensure it’s not just a stronghold that keeps Russia at bay, but a city that is fully liberated of invading forces. Securing that city, he said, could be a turning point for the war.
The Ukrainian president also said he spoke with President Joe Biden about his 10-point peace formula to end the war, which Biden supported.
“Your money is not charity,” he said, receiving one of nearly two dozen standing ovations that evening. “It’s an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.”
Pelosi, who is in the final days of her tenure, then presented Zelenskyy with an American flag that had flown over the Capitol that day in his honor.
The speech, which Biden and Pelosi had covertly planned for weeks, was a shock to the Capitol in its busiest week of the year, with a nearly $1.7 trillion spending bill on tap. At the start of the week, many members had dreaded returning to Washington amid threats of both a government shutdown and a massive snowstorm. Instead, they received a historic global address.
It’s also something of a political capstone for Pelosi in her final days as speaker, who made her own surprise trip to Kyiv in May, the first trip of any party leader.