WASHINGTON — President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine invoked the memory of America’s darkest days on Wednesday as he pleaded for more military aid to combat Russia’s “inhumane destruction” of his country, directly challenging President Biden and members of Congress to help by showing a wrenching video of the carnage in Ukraine’s cities.
Appearing before Congress by video link from Kyiv, Mr. Zelensky likened Russia’s three-week onslaught in Ukraine to Japan’s World War II air assault on Pearl Harbor, when “your sky was black from the planes attacking you,” and to Sept. 11, when “innocent people were attacked, attacked from the air.” Dressed in an olive green T-shirt and seated next to a Ukrainian flag, he urged the United States and its allies to fulfill a moral duty by imposing a no-fly zone over his country to prevent Russian attacks from the air.
“I call on you to do more,” Mr. Zelensky said, describing the conflict raging in Ukraine as an assault on the world’s civilized nations. Speaking directly to Mr. Biden, he added: “I wish you to be the leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.”
The appeal and the explicit video of people wounded and killed by Russian attacks left some lawmakers in tears and brought members in both parties to their feet in lengthy standing ovations for the wartime leader. In his own remarks a few hours later, Mr. Biden praised Mr. Zelensky for demonstrating “remarkable courage and strength in the face of brutal aggression” and announced that the United States would soon deliver $800 million worth of antiaircraft and anti-armor missiles, grenades, rifles, body armor and more.
Mr. Zelensky’s appeals in recent weeks, capped by his emotional speech on Wednesday, have helped spur bipartisan action from Mr. Biden and members of Congress, including a nearly $14 billion aid package that includes help for refugees, economic assistance and billions of dollars in military aid. Mr. Biden signed that legislation on Tuesday.
But while Mr. Zelensky has steadily increased the pressure by tapping into a public sense of anger and grief about the consequences of Russia’s invasion, he has failed to persuade Mr. Biden and most lawmakers to support his most pressing demands for help — access to fighter jets and efforts to close off the skies above his country.
Mr. Biden and his top military aides have rejected requests to help Ukraine acquire aging Russian-made MIG fighters from Poland. American officials said the Pentagon had assessed that they would do little good in Ukraine’s fight against Russia — and might be used by President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia as an excuse to widen the fighting to neighboring countries in Europe.
Mr. Zelensky’s speech did little to immediately shake the resolve of the United States and its allies to avoid direct military confrontation with Russia, which leaders of NATO countries believe could lead to a catastrophic global war with devastating consequences.
In Brussels, NATO officials again categorically rejected the idea of a no-fly zone over Ukraine, saying it would require the kind of military conflict with Russia that they are seeking to avoid. In Washington, Mr. Biden made no mention of a no-fly zone even as he pledged to send more military aid.
“The American people are answering President Zelensky’s call for more help, more weapons for Ukraine,” Mr. Biden said. He also vowed to help Ukraine acquire long-distance antiaircraft systems and munitions that could help defend the country’s cities against Russian fighters and bombers.
“Putin is inflicting appalling, appalling devastation and horror on Ukraine,” Mr. Biden said. “Bombing apartment buildings, maternity wards, hospitals. I mean, it’s God-awful.”
Asked a question as he departed an event later in the day, Mr. Biden said of Mr. Putin: “I think he is a war criminal.” It was the first time the administration had specifically accused the Russian president of war crimes over the invasion of Ukraine.
Mr. Zelensky and Mr. Biden delivered their speeches against the backdrop of more grim developments in Ukraine, including shelling in Kyiv and the northern city of Chernihiv on Wednesday.
Ahead of Mr. Biden’s eight-minute speech, Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, warned his Russian counterpart against “any possible Russian decision to use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine,” the White House said in a statement.
The warning to Nikolai P. Patrushev, Mr. Putin’s main national security adviser, reflected escalating concerns in Washington that the Russians, stymied in their hopes of a quick takeover of the country, could resort to using weapons of mass destruction.
In his address to Congress, Mr. Zelensky appealed to both lawmakers’ emotions and their belief in the United States as the leader of the free world. He thanked lawmakers for their support but sternly suggested that the United States had yet to fulfill the nation’s purported moral duty to help defend democracies terrorized by violent authoritarians — including democracies that are outside its alliances.
He borrowed a phrase from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — “I have a dream” — as he urged the United States to help him fight Russia’s aircraft, saying “I have a need” to protect the sky from Russian attacks.
“I see no sense in life if it cannot stop the deaths,” Mr. Zelensky said, speaking in English during the end of his speech.
Mr. Zelensky delivered his address through a translator to a packed movie-theater-style auditorium in the Capitol complex, calling it “the darkest time for our country” as he asked lawmakers to watch images of Ukraine before and after the Russian invasion. Such explicit scenes of wreckage have rarely, if ever, been shown to lawmakers in an address delivered by a foreign dignitary, and the effect was immediately palpable.
Sitting rapt in their seats during the address, many members of Congress could be seen wiping away tears from their faces as they watched scenes of a Ukraine in shambles. Mr. Zelensky’s defiance in the face of the unrelenting Russian assault has inspired lawmakers in both parties, who have been eager to send him aid.
Many lawmakers have pressed Mr. Biden to do more to help Ukraine and punish Russia, often on a quicker timeline than the administration has desired. In his remarks, Mr. Zelensky appeared to play up that dynamic, as he simultaneously praised Mr. Biden’s help but said it had fallen short.
“A few minutes ago, President Zelensky reminded us that the United States is indeed the leader of the free world,” Senator Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky and the minority leader, said in a speech from the Senate floor. “So it’s time we acted like it.”
Congress last week approved the nearly $14 billion aid package for Ukraine, more than doubling the Biden administration’s original price tag in an unusually swift and bipartisan display. But faced with Mr. Zelensky’s emotional descriptions of a terrorized nation, lawmakers on Wednesday emerged from his presentation showing no qualms about sending him even more aid, in what is likely to become a messy debate that splinters along party lines.
Russia-Ukraine War: Key Things to Know
While members of Congress generally agree that the United States should send more weaponry to Ukraine, deep disagreements remain over what exactly would be appropriate to provide.
Some of Mr. Zelensky’s requests, such as the imposition of a no-fly zone, have been ruled out by the Biden administration and NATO allies. Others are being more seriously considered by Republicans and Democrats in Congress, including providing Ukraine with advanced antimissile systems and drones.
And several lawmakers in both parties continue to call for the United States to help transfer MIG fighter jets to Ukraine, despite questions about whether the country’s air force could even fly the planes and whether Russia would view the transfer as an escalatory move.
“They need more Javelins, they need more ammo, they need more Stingers, they need more surface-to-air missiles, they need more airplanes, they need more of everything,” said Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska, referring to Javelin antitank missiles and Stinger antiaircraft missiles.
“Zelensky has the courage of his convictions,” Mr. Sasse added. “The question he asked the Congress and the United States government is: Will we have the courage of ours? We’re a superpower. We should act like it.”
With many in Congress calling for the White House to get behind the transfer of the MIG fighters to Ukraine from Poland, the White House pushed back again.
Jen Psaki, the White House press secretary, said on Tuesday that because the planes would take off from NATO air bases, those bases could become targets for Russian retaliation, potentially drawing NATO forces into the war. On Wednesday, she built on that argument, saying that because the jets were capable of making it to Russia to conduct an attack, they could be considered offensive weapons.
The Biden administration insists that the long-range antiaircraft systems being transferred to Ukraine are entirely defensive in nature. But it is not clear that the Russians would regard them as such, since both the antiaircraft systems and the MIG fighters could take down Russian planes.
In private, some administration officials concede that the distinction is a narrow one and that it is not clear that the Russians would consider antiaircraft batteries as defensive.
Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, said Mr. Zelensky made “an incredibly compelling case that Putin will only stop when we stop him.” But he added a note of restraint, giving voice to a calculation that top administration officials have privately weighed.
“It really is just a fundamental question of how much risk are we willing to take,” Mr. Coons said.
The public and often partisan debate over which weapons to send to Ukraine has clearly annoyed some Biden allies. Senator Christopher S. Murphy, Democrat of Connecticut, said the public discussion was reaching the point of absurdity.
“For us to be telegraphing to Russia every single day our divisions over what kind of defensive support Ukraine should get, and telegraphing to them exactly what weapon systems we’re transferring, I don’t know is helpful,” Mr. Murphy said. “This is a strange way to prosecute a war.”
Despite the divisions among lawmakers, Mr. Biden sought to make clear that the United States was united in its support of Ukraine.
“Let there be no doubt, no uncertainty, no question,” he said. “America stands with the forces of freedom. We always have, we always will.”
Jonathan Weisman, Emily Cochrane and David E. Sanger contributed reporting.