President Joe Biden announced an additional aid package for Ukraine totaling $800 million on Wednesday, hours after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made an impassioned plea to Congress for more help fending off Russia’s invasion.
Zelenskyy specifically asked the United States to “close the sky” over Ukraine to protect civilians who are being slaughtered by Russian airstrikes. The Biden administration has opposed the move, with the president saying it would kick off “World War III.”
Instead of jets or American troops, Biden said the U.S. would send 800 Stinger anti-aircraft systems, 9,000 anti-armor systems, including 2,000 Javelins, and 7,000 small arms, including grenade launchers, rifles, pistols, shotguns and machine guns for civilians to defend themselves. The White House said 20 million rounds of ammunition and 100 drones would also be shipped, along with 25,000 sets of body armor and the same number of helmets.
The new package brings the total amount of Ukrainian aid authorized this week to $1 billion, as a $200 million package was approved over the weekend.
“This is a struggle that pits the appetites of an autocrat against humankind’s desire to be free,” Biden said from the White House. He added that he was using his “presidential authority” to transfer the equipment overseas from the U.S. Department of Defense.
The president also praised Zelenskyy’s speech, saying he watched it from the White House residence Wednesday morning.
Zelenskyy began by addressing members of Congress in Ukrainian, invoking Sept. 11 and Pearl Harbor as he described his country’s fight to hold onto its democracy. He then screened a short video that contrasted images of sunbathed Ukrainian cities with what many parts looked like now, with apartment buildings hollowed out by Russian bombs and doctors struggling to save children hit by shrapnel. Many of the images were graphic.
A message stood out at the end: Close the sky over Ukraine.
“Is this too much to ask?” he’d said minutes earlier.
Zelenskyy then switched to English and spoke to Biden directly.
“I am addressing the President Biden,” he said. “You are the leader of your nation, of your great nation. I wish you to be leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means being the leader of peace.”
Foreign policy experts have said that instituting a no-fly zone over Ukraine would amount to direct U.S. involvement in Russia’s war, because enforcing airspace restrictions means shooting down planes that violate it. Some members of Congress have urged Biden to facilitate the transfer of jets to Ukraine so that Ukrainian pilots could do the work themselves, but the administration has said it would not go that far, either, believing that Russia would view it as direct provocation.
Others doubt the impact that a couple of dozen warplanes could have.
“We believe the most effective way to support the Ukrainian military in their fight against Russia is to provide increased amounts of antitank weapons and air defense systems, which is ongoing with the international community,” Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, who heads up the U.S. European Command, told The Washington Post last week.
“The Ukrainians are making excellent use of these weapons now,” Wolters added.
Although the Russians outnumber the Ukrainians in tanks and planes, Ukrainian fighters have seen some success using smaller defense weaponry.
Getting the additional weapons to people all over Ukraine could be difficult, however, if Russia makes good on its threat to target convoys of supplies sent from Western nations. Ukrainian officials allege that Russian forces are already blocking humanitarian aid to the city of Mariupol, which is encircled by Russian troops that are preventing many from fleeing.