Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made an impassioned plea directly to U.S. lawmakers in a Zoom call Saturday morning, calling for military planes and support, and an embargo on Russian oil, according to a member of Congress who was on the call.
Zelensky told lawmakers that Ukraine needs jets because its air force was destroyed on day one of the Russian invasion, according to another source who was on the call. And he asked for an oil embargo on Russia, which he said would be the most significant factor for Ukraine. Zelensky told lawmakers that if there had been sanctions in place in September or October, there would not have been an invasion.
The urgency of Zelensky's requests was evident from the outset — he opened with a remark along the lines of "this might be the last time you see me alive." He warned them that after Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin will not stop. Poland and Lithuania, both NATO members, will be next. He called on the U.S. to send planes and troops there now to prepare, and to release surplus Warsaw Pact planes — MIGs and Sukohvs — from Poland and other countries. A source familiar with the call said that the subject of a no-fly zone came up.
Congressman Mike Quigley, the chairman of the House Ukrainian Caucus, told CBS News after the call that Zelensky had stressed that the battle in the air is pivotal and affects everything that's taking place on the ground. "Either close the skies or give us the planes one way or the other because...the battle is often won in the air," Quigley said, summing up Zelensky's message to Congress.
Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, in a statement after the call, noted Zelensky's request for the Russian-made planes, and he said he would do "all I can to help the administration to facilitate their transfer."
Zelensky also asked lawmakers for more lethal aid, according to one of the sources on the call, and he asked the U.S. to cut off Visa and Mastercard from Russia.
The Ukrainian president was received warmly by both Democrats and Republicans, according to Quigley.
"When everybody turned on their microphones ... there was extraordinary, universal, strong, bipartisan, bicameral support," he said, adding, "This was historic, right — he leader of a free, democratic sovereign country speaking live from his capital when it is under siege and with the realization that he has been made targeted for death by an autocratic despot." Quigley marveled at "how calm he was, how courageous he is," and said he hoped that this would be "motivational" enough to get more Ukrainian aid passed quickly.
Over 280 Senate and House members joined the Zoom, according to one of the lawmakers. The Ukrainian president told the senators and House members that he is thankful for the strong sanctions and unified response from the West. After speaking for about 30 minutes, the Ukrainian president took questions from lawmakers.
Zelensky thanked the U.S. for the severe sanctions, which he said have Russian business leaders reeling from the impact. He also talked about the Russian soldiers Ukraine has captured, telling lawmakers that the soldiers are often unaware of the real conditions in Ukraine and have no idea that they're fighting a war of hostility.
He spoke of Ukraine's strong relationship with Poland and said that humanitarian and military assistance is flowing into Ukraine easily.
A source on the call said that Schumer told Zelensky that "we are inspired by you and the strength and courage of the Ukrainian people." Schumer also said in a statement that he and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and others "are working hard in a bipartisan fashion to get all the assistance the administration has requested for the Ukrainian people quickly" — over $10 billion in economic, humanitarian and security funds.