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Risch calls for more arms to Ukraine after Zelenskyy addresses Congress

In this image from video provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office and posted on Facebook, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to members of the U.S. Congress from Kyiv, Ukraine, on Wednesday, March 16, 2022. Zelenskyy summoned the memory of Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in appealing to the U.S. Congress to do more to help Ukraine’s fight against Russia. President Joe Biden said the U.S. is sending more anti-aircraft, anti-armor weapons and drones.  (HOGP)

WASHINGTON – Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called for the United States to provide airplanes and more weapons to Ukraine after the country’s president addressed members of Congress on Wednesday.

In a video address to House and Senate lawmakers who gathered in an auditorium at the Capitol, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked the U.S. government for its support amid Russia’s invasion of his country while repeating his plea for a no-fly zone enforced by NATO forces.

While Risch stopped short of endorsing that approach – which would require U.S. or allied forces to shoot down Russian aircraft that violate the order, a move sure to escalate the conflict – he said in a news conference the United States should provide Ukraine’s military with more surface-to-air missiles and other antiaircraft systems.

“President Zelenskyy is right calling for a no-fly zone,” Risch said. “He is the president of that country and should declare a no-fly zone. And we should provide the means for him to enforce that no-fly zone.”

The Idaho Republican’s proposal aimed to solve an increasingly vexing problem facing the U.S. government as Russian forces continue to pummel Ukrainian cities from the air, forcing millions of Ukrainians to flee their homes and killing at least 691 civilians, according to the latest United Nations count: What more can the United States and its allies do to counter the Russian military without risking an attack on NATO forces that would trigger the alliance’s mutual defense pledge?

While Zelenskyy has repeatedly called for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone, on Wednesday he proposed a middle ground.

“Russia has turned the Ukrainian sky into a source of death for thousands of people,” he said through an interpreter. “To create a no-fly zone over Ukraine to save people, is this too much to ask? A humanitarian no-fly zone, (so) that Russia would not be able to terrorize our free cities. If this is too much to ask, we offer an alternative.”

The alternative, Zelenskyy suggested, could include surface-to-air missile systems and fighter jets. Risch endorsed the idea of sending aircraft on Twitter but didn’t mention that option in the press conference.

Zelenskyy “is a courageous leader, who’s truly grateful for what the U.S. has done to help #Ukraine,” Risch tweeted. “But I agree with him completely – we have to do more. Let’s send them airplanes, let’s send them air defense systems, and let’s do it faster.”

Poland’s government has offered to transfer its own Russian-made MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine if the United States replaces them, but the Pentagon has so far rejected that idea, citing fears it could prompt Russian President Vladimir Putin to retaliate.

After Zelenskyy’s address, Biden announced an additional $800 million in military aid to Ukraine. The announced aid does not include replacement jets. While the American president stopped short of meeting all of Zelenskyy’s requests for assistance, in response to a question from a reporter Biden called Putin “a war criminal.”

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, issued a statement calling explicitly for the Biden administration to transfer the fighter jets to Ukraine, something he and Risch both called for along with 40 other GOP senators in a March 10 letter to Biden.

In his press conference, Risch decried that hesitancy even as he seemingly endorsed the kind of measured approach the Biden administration has so far taken.

“I’m sick and tired of hearing the administration talk about being worried about what Putin’s thinking and what he’s going to do,” Risch said. “I want to hear from the administration what they’re doing to put in Putin’s mind a fear and a thought of what are we going to do. We’re the most powerful nation on the planet. We need to telegraph that to Putin. I want to hear them start talking about winning, not about settling.”

Other Northwest lawmakers also reiterated their strong support for the Ukrainian people and their president after Zelenskyy’s address.

“President Zelensky gave a powerful speech to Congress today,” Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., wrote on Twitter. “His words are backed by unwavering heroism & bravery–both by him & the people of Ukraine. The U.S. must continue to do everything we can to support Ukraine & hold Putin accountable for his unprovoked & deadly war.”

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Spokane, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, hailed Zelenskyy’s speech and responded to a video the Ukrainian president showed during his address, which juxtaposed images of Ukrainian cities before the war with clips from the war.

“President Zelenskyy gave a powerful appeal for stronger American leadership,” McMorris Rodgers said in a statement. “The video of Putin’s attacks against innocent lives broke my heart and the hearts of all who saw it.”

“President Zelenskyy called on us to do more – more sanctions, more security assistance, and more defense equipment,” she continued. “We can and should do more to help the people of Ukraine in their fight to self-determination and independence. Glory to Ukraine!”

McMorris Rodgers also took the opportunity to repeat her call for the Biden administration to take steps that could increase U.S. oil and gas production, including lifting restrictions on drilling on federal land.

“Expanding America’s energy dominance in oil and natural gas must also be top priority,” she said. “Using our energy resources is one of the strongest actions we can take to help our allies fight back and end Putin’s ability to use energy to fund his war.”

Rep. Adam Smith, a Bellevue Democrat who chairs the House Armed Services Committee, reflected the difficult balance the White House is trying to strike, supporting Ukraine without sliding into a broader conflict.

“President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people have shown courage in the face of Russian aggression – and they have inspired the whole world,” Smith wrote on Twitter. “We must do everything we can to stand with Ukraine, hold Putin accountable, and prevent a wider war in Eastern Europe.”