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Ukrainian president asks Congress members to back no-fly zone, sanction Russian oil


The president of Ukraine held a call yesterday with over 280 U.S. lawmakers, and he made clear where his country needs help - military aid and securing its skies. President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleaded for NATO to establish a no-fly zone or provide Ukraine with more military aircraft. He also asked American lawmakers to sanction Russian oil and gas exports. Congressman Jim Himes, a Democrat from Connecticut, was on that call and joins us now. Thanks for being with us, Congressman.

JIM HIMES: Happy to be with you.

FLORIDO: Describe that call for us, if you would. What was the mood?

HIMES: Well, it was a remarkable call. You know, you have your usual Zoom calls with the Dental Association or with the - you know, various political groups. This was an unusual one because we were all talking to somebody, obviously, who has been leading a heroic effort under unbelievably difficult circumstances. And what was remarkable about it was he - President Zelenskyy spoke with conviction, with strength and made a very direct ask. And you characterized it correctly. He said, you know, my people are fighting. They're doing a remarkable job, but we need - he did say, if you can't do a no-fly zone, appropriately recognizing that that's a huge step change in the conflict, he said, I absolutely need aircraft, and I need people to stop buying Russian oil.

FLORIDO: Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska said he interpreted the Ukrainian president's message as, quote, "close the skies, or give us planes." Was that your takeaway, too?

HIMES: That's exactly the way he framed it. And, you know, obviously he would like a no-fly zone, but he also recognizes what I hope that - as that becomes more of a topic of conversation in Washington we all recognize, which is that a no-fly zone is the United States military or NATO going to war with Russia. So he acknowledged in the way he made the ask that that's a very, very big step but was very clear about his need for planes and that the world stop buying Russian energy.

FLORIDO: Do you favor establishing a no-fly zone? And is there any way to establish one that wouldn't amount to NATO forces essentially fighting Russian troops?

HIMES: There isn't. And whether one ultimately becomes necessary or not is going to depend a lot on how bad it gets. And that's just sort of the cynical calculus. But what some people don't understand, because they think about the no-fly zones in Iraq in particular, we don't establish a no-fly zone without taking out all of the threats to the pilots that would be enforcing it. And anti-aircraft weapons operate at great range.

So people need to remember that the first thing that we would do in order to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine would be to send the U.S. military to attack military units inside Russia - the anti-aircraft batteries that are there, the anti-aircraft artillery. United States Air Force planes would be killing thousands of Russian military members inside Russia.

And there's obviously two big questions about that. No. 1, how does Russia respond to a United States military attack against its people, which would be devastating? And No. 2, what does that do to NATO? - because, really, the remarkable trump card we've had in this whole conflict has been the unity of NATO. And, you know, we need to bear in mind that the Germans, the British, the French, the people who really would be on the front lines of a European World War, would have a view about whether that's a good idea.

FLORIDO: Well, Congressman, we've got about a minute left. President Zelenskyy also asked for harsher sanctions on Russia, including ones on energy exports. The Biden administration and the European Union have so far resisted sanctioning Russian oil and gas products. But is there any support among your colleagues in Congress for those kinds of sanctions?

HIMES: There's very strong support. In fact, I would tell you that that was probably the turning point during the call yesterday. And like any number of other members of Congress, I subsequently yesterday went to a variety of different rallies and protests. And I suspect that when Congress reconvenes on Monday there is going to be, if not unanimity, at least a very, very strong push to stop the importation by the United States of Russian oil. Now, mind you, that's not a huge amount of oil. But yes, that's a big deal that came out of the call yesterday.

FLORIDO: That's Congressman Jim Himes. He's a Democrat representing Connecticut's Fourth District. Thank you for your time.

HIMES: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.