Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky is speaking to Congress on Wednesday. What does he want?
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will address the U.S. House and Senate on Wednesday morning in a virtual session. The Ukrainian leader’s passionate defense of his country as it fights off a brutal invasion from Russia has won over the world.
Here are five major questions hanging over what could prove to be a historic address:
What will Zelensky ask for?
Since Russia invaded his country on Feb. 24, Zelensky has successfully pushed the U.S. government to impose tougher sanctions on Russia, send more arms to Ukraine and boost humanitarian efforts as its European neighbors grapple with nearly 3 million Ukrainian refugees who have streamed across their borders.
A woman reacts as she stands in front of a house burning after being shelled in the city of Irpin.
He wants the American government to send more financial aid, impose stiffer sanctions and get more aggressive in both arming and defending Ukraine. The Biden administration has resisted his requests for fighter jets and the imposition of a no-fly zone over Ukraine.
You can watch the speech, scheduled to begin at 6 a.m. PDT, via livestream.
Why has Biden rebuffed Zelensky’s no-fly entreaties?
The administration worries that more aggressive actions could risk sparking World War III. A no-fly zone, in particular, would potentially put American pilots in direct conflict with their Russian counterparts. Some members of Congress have argued that the administration is being too cautious and that Russian President Vladimir Putin has more to fear from the U.S.
Pressure from Zelensky and U.S. lawmakers since the Russians crossed into Ukraine has already succeeded in some respects. The administration, for example, implemented an embargo on Russian energy after resisting that step for a couple of weeks.
How much pressure will Zelensky exert in his speech?
Biden has cast the war as a defining moment in the worldwide struggle between democracies and autocracies. But he’s been skittish about going too far.
Zelensky is not afraid to make direct appeals. He could call out Biden by name, or even quote his own words, proving them to be hollow.
In a speech to the Canadian Parliament on Tuesday, Zelensky asked Prime Minister Justin Trudeau how he would feel if his own children were the ones getting shelled.
Zelensky also asked Western governments to “please do not stop in your efforts. Please expand your efforts.” His speech, relayed via a translator, was passionate, addressing in vivid terms the horrors of Russia’s attack on his nation.
The congressional address has the potential to be more dramatic. Zelensky is in Kyiv, which is being encircled by Russian forces, and he will likely not waste his chance to appeal directly to U.S. lawmakers, who will be watching him from an auditorium in the Capitol complex.
How might Congress react?
Members of Congress tend to respond to polls, and Zelensky is enormously popular with the American people. He is the rare leader who commands bipartisan support.
In the middle of February, more than half of respondents to an Economist/YouGov poll had no opinion of him or did not know who he was. By last week, the Economist/YouGov found Zelensky commanded 60% approval from American adults, with only 17% expressing an unfavorable opinion.
The former actor and comedian has proven himself to be a masterful communicator, resisting efforts to leave his country and inspiring his people to fend off a powerful adversary.
Biden, by contrast, has less leverage with lawmakers. His approval rating is in the low 40s. And just 33% of Americans are confident in his ability to handle an international crisis, according to the Economist poll.
What is Zelensky most likely to win from the U.S.?
The U.S. can most easily offer more assistance helping its European allies handle the refugee crisis.
Vice President Kamala Harris was asked on a trip to Poland last week whether the U.S. would ease the process for Ukrainian refugees who have American relatives to enter the United States. She was noncommittal. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said on Tuesday that the administration is open to changes.
“Currently they can apply through the refugee process but we’re continuing to discuss what options may exist,” she said.
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