Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the president of Ukraine, urged US lawmakers to help provide aircraft to defend the country against Russian invasion during a video meeting with members of Congress on Saturday.
Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, said Zelenskiy “made a desperate plea” for the military aid, which would include planes, drones and anti-aircraft missiles. The Ukrainian president praised sanctions placed upon Russia during the meeting but pressed US lawmakers to go further by banning oil imports from Moscow.
“These planes are very much needed,” Schumer, a Democrat, said in a statement following the gathering of more than 280 senators and House of Representative members. “And I will do all I can to help the administration to facilitate their transfer.”
On Friday, Zelenskiy criticized Nato for not imposing a no-fly zone above Ukraine. “All the people who die from this day forward will also die because of you,” he warned in a speech. Nato has said sending jets to shoot down Russian planes would risk a severe escalation in the conflict.
Russian-made fighter jets familiar to Ukrainian pilots may be sent to the beleaguered country, however, possibly via US allies in Europe. Congress is working on a bipartisan $10bn package of humanitarian and security aid that could facilitate this.
Schumer, cited by a source briefed on the call, said Democrats and Republicans were “working very hard” toward passing the relief package, AFP reported.
“We will get that assistance of over $10bn in economic, humanitarian and security assistance to the Ukrainian people quickly,” he said. The bipartisan effort was underlined by the Republican senator Steve Daines, who told Fox News after the call that lawmakers were “unified in our support for Ukraine”.
Republican senators, including Marco Rubio and Lindsey Graham, tweeted their support for Zelenskiy and further measures against Russia following the meeting. Rick Scott, another Republican, said the US should target Russia and Belarus by taking “every action to destroy their economies”.
Later on Saturday the US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, met with the Ukrainian foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, at the Ukraine-Poland border and America’s top diplomat briefly crossed into Ukraine with his counterpart. “The entire world stands with Ukraine, just as I am standing here in Ukraine with my friend, my colleague,” Blinken said.
Kuleba said: “I hope the people of Ukraine will be able to see this as a clear manifestation that we have friends who literally stand by us.”
The meeting took place amid worsening US-Russian relations, with the state department calling on Americans living or traveling in Russia to “depart immediately” and warning that they face “potential harassment”.
Also on Saturday it emerged that Brittney Griner, one of America’s most decorated female basketball players, had been detained last month by Russia’s federal customs service authorities after the discovery of vape cartridges said to have contained hashish oil in her luggage at an airport near Moscow.
In Ukraine, Russian forces are attempting to shell and encircle the cities of Kharkiv, Mykolaiv, Chernihiv and Sumy, with numerous reports of civilian areas being hit. Odesa, Ukraine’s largest port city, is under repeated attack from Russian ships, according to Ukrainian officials.
Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, has refused to call off the invasion in face of sanctions that are withering the Russian economy, instead moving to shut down Facebook and Twitter access in the country in an attempt to quell internal dissent.
Putin also warned against any Nato-imposed no-fly zone. “That very second, we will view them as participants of the military conflict, and it would not matter what members they are,” he said.
The United Nations has warned of a growing humanitarian crisis within Ukraine, with the UN’s World Food Programme saying that millions of people require food aid “immediately”. An estimated 1.4 million people have fled Ukraine to neighboring countries.