Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the president of Ukraine, urged U.S. lawmakers to help provide aircraft to defend the country against Russian invasion during a video meeting with members of Congress on Saturday.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate Majority Leader, said Zelenskiy “made a desperate plea” for military aid, which would include planes, drones and anti-aircraft missiles. Ukraine’s president welcomed the sanctions imposed on Russia at the meeting, but urged U.S. lawmakers to go further by banning oil imports from Moscow.
“These planes are badly needed,” Schumer, a Democrat, said in a statement following the rally of more than 280 senators and members of the House of Representatives. “And I will do everything I can to help the administration facilitate their transfer.”
On Friday, Zelenskiy criticized NATO for not imposing a no-fly zone over Ukraine. “All the people who die from this day forward will also die because of you,” he warned in a speech. NATO said sending jets to shoot down Russian planes would risk a serious escalation of the conflict.
However, Russian-made fighter jets familiar to Ukrainian pilots could be sent to the beleaguered country, possibly via US allies in Europe. Congress is working on a bipartisan $10 billion humanitarian and security package that could facilitate that.
Schumer, quoted by a source briefed on the call, said Democrats and Republicans were “working very hard” to pass the relief package, AFP reported.
“We will quickly get this over $10 billion in economic, humanitarian and security assistance to the Ukrainian people,” he said. The bipartisan effort was highlighted by Republican Senator Steve Daines, who told Fox News after the call that lawmakers were “unified in our support for Ukraine.”
Republican senators, including Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, tweeted their support for Zelenskiy and further action against Russia after the meeting. Rick Scott, another Republican, said the US should target Russia and Belarus by taking “every measure to destroy their economies”.
Later on Saturday, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba at the Ukraine-Poland border and the top US diplomat briefly entered Ukraine with his counterpart . “The whole world stands with Ukraine, just as I am here in Ukraine with my friend, my colleague,” Blinken said.
Kuleba said, “I hope the people of Ukraine can see this as a clear manifestation that we have friends who literally support us.”
The meeting came amid deteriorating US-Russian relations, with the State Department calling on Americans living or traveling in Russia to “leave immediately” and warning they face “potential harassment”.
Also on Saturday, it emerged that Brittney Griner, one of America’s most decorated basketball players, was arrested by Russian federal customs authorities last month after vaping cartridges were discovered that allegedly contained hash oil in his luggage at an airport near Moscow.
In Ukraine, Russian forces are attempting to bombard and surround the cities of Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Chernihiv and Sumy, and there are numerous reports of civilian areas affected. Odessa, Ukraine’s largest port city, has been the target of repeated attacks by Russian ships, according to Ukrainian officials.
Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, refused to call off the invasion in the face of sanctions that are blighting the Russian economy, preferring to shut down access to Facebook and Twitter in the country in an attempt to quell internal dissent.
Putin also warned against any NATO-imposed no-fly zones. “This very second, we will consider them as participants in the military conflict, and it doesn’t matter which members they are,” he said.
The United Nations has warned of a growing humanitarian crisis in Ukraine, with the UN’s World Food Program saying millions need food aid “immediately”. An estimated 1.4 million people have fled Ukraine to neighboring countries.