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Congress largely supports Zelenskyy's call for more sanctions and weapons from U.S.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, spoke this morning to members of Congress virtually. He was in the capital city of Kyiv, where he said his country is under continued assault by Russia. Through an interpreter, he pressed the U.S. for more sanctions and more weapons.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) In the darkest time for our country, for the whole Europe, I call on you to do more.

CHANG: NPR's Deirdre Walsh joins us now from Capitol Hill. Hey, Deirdre.

DEIRDRE WALSH, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So Zelenskyy has spoken with U.S. lawmakers before. What was different about today's address to Congress, you think?

WALSH: Well, this one was public. He's previously spoken in private with lawmakers. But this speech was broadcast live to the American people. And I think that broader audience was who President Zelenskyy was appealing to. He was making the case to the American people about what's at stake for his country but also for democratic rule in Europe. He spoke in Ukrainian. But at the end, he spoke in English and directly appealed to President Biden. He urged him to be a, quote, "leader of peace." At one point, Zelenskyy played a video that had really graphic images, showing the brutal impact of the war in Ukraine. One lawmaker I talked to said it moved many in the room to tears.

CHANG: Well, what about his plea for more weapons and more sanctions? Did you get a sense that lawmakers were receptive to that?

WALSH: Very receptive. Members of both parties says the U.S. needs to step it up. They want the U.S. to transfer more defensive weapons, more of the Stingers and javelins, the anti-missile systems that have already been deployed. There's also bipartisan support in Congress for the U.S. to facilitate sending the Soviet-style MiG planes from Poland that Ukrainian pilots can use to do - as Zelenskyy said - to, quote, "close the skies." The Biden administration has argued that doing that would be an escalation. But lawmakers up here say Ukraine needs those planes to tip the balance. Here's Colorado Democratic Congressman Jason Crow. He's an Iraq and Afghanistan War veteran.

JASON CROW: I think we could provide more weapons and better weapons to help them fight and win. The bottom line is Ukrainians, if this is an equal playing field, will win. But it's not an equal playing field.

CHANG: OK, more weapons, Deirdre, but what about a no-fly zone? Like, most members of Congress have opposed that, right? Did this speech change any minds?

WALSH: Not on that issue. The majority, as you say, agree with the administration's position that a no-fly zone risks drawing the U.S. into a broader conflict. Some have started talking about what they're calling a humanitarian no-fly zone, but it's unclear how that would work. There are some on Capitol Hill who say patience could wear thin, and people might change their minds about what the U.S. response should be depending on the conditions on the ground.

CHANG: Well, how has President Biden responded so far to this pressure to do more?

WALSH: Just hours after the speech, President Biden announced $800 million in additional security assistance. And he said more was coming. He talked about the systems that the U.S. would be sending - long-range missiles, drones, small arms, all to equip the Ukraine military. But he also appeared to be setting expectations for the American people that this conflict could go on for a while. Here's President Biden.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Now, I want to be honest with you. This could be a long and difficult battle.

WALSH: He also said the president would be sending humanitarian aid to both those in Ukraine and the millions who fled to neighboring countries and stressed he's still working with allies to isolate President Putin.

CHANG: Well, Deirdre, I mean, Congress already did approve a funding package last week. What else are they planning to do, you think?

WALSH: They did. They're also expected to vote soon on a bill that would revoke Russia's most favored nation trading status. The president has publicly backed this, but Congress actually needs to vote on it to make it happen. That means that the U.S. and other countries can raise tariffs on Russia to try to damage its economy even further.

CHANG: All right. That is NPR's Deirdre Walsh. Thank you so much, Deirdre.

WALSH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.