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The Morning Dispatch: Zelensky Addresses Congress
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The Morning Dispatch: Zelensky Addresses Congress

In a stirring video address, Ukraine's leader calls on America and the world to do more to deter Russian aggression.

Happy Thursday! We tried to make the text of today’s newsletter as green as the Chicago River last weekend, but Substack didn’t have enough St. Patrick’s Day spirit. ☘️

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with his Russian counterpart General Nikolay Patrushev on Wednesday, the first publicly confirmed high-level talks between American and Russian officials since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began last month. According to a White House readout of the call, Sullivan warned Patrushev about “the consequences and implications of any possible Russian decision to use chemical or biological weapons in Ukraine.”

  • Secretary of State Antony Blinken told NPR yesterday that Western sanctions against Russia are “not designed to be permanent,” but that their end is tied to Ukraine’s independence, territorial integrity, and sovereignty being restored. “We will want to make sure … anything that’s done is in effect irreversible,” he said. “[And] that this can’t happen again, that Russia won’t pick up and do exactly what it’s doing in a year or two.”

  • The Federal Reserve Open Markets Committee voted Wednesday to raise its target interest rate 0.25 percentage points, the first such increase since 2018. Fed officials dramatically revised their inflation expectations for 2022—they believe the annual personal consumption expenditures (PCE) price index will come in between 4.1 and 4.4 percent—and signaled they plan to hike the target rate several more times this year until it nears 2 percent. “As I looked around the table at today’s meeting, I saw a committee that’s acutely aware of the need to return the economy to price stability and determined to use our tools to do exactly that,” Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell said.

  • The Senate Banking Committee voted to advance President Biden’s remaining Federal Reserve nominees on Wednesday, one day after Sarah Bloom Raskin withdrew herself from consideration. A Republican boycott over Raskin had been holding up the confirmation of the whole group—including Chair Jerome Powell and Vice Chair Lael Brainard—but Wednesday’s votes paved the way for full-Senate confirmation.

  • The Census Bureau reported Wednesday that U.S. retail sales increased 0.3 percent in February, a sharp drop from the 4.9 percent month-over-month increase in January. The statistic is not adjusted for inflation, however, so higher prices likely accounted for much of the increase. The consumer price index increased 0.8 percent over the same time period.

  • Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas announced Wednesday the Biden administration will grant Temporary Protected Status to Afghans currently in the United States illegally or on non-immigrant visas. The move will shield the approximately 80,000 Afghans evacuated to the U.S. since last summer’s withdrawal from deportation for 18 months.

  • Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed yesterday that two British-Iranians detained in Iran were returning home to the United Kingdom, ending years-long imprisonments that had become embroiled in the West’s nuclear talks with Tehran.

Zelensky Addresses Congress

(Photo by J. Scott Applewhite-Pool/Getty Images.)

It’s clear by now that Ukrainians were much better prepared to resist Vladimir Putin’s aggression in 2022 than they were in 2014, when Russia and its “little green men” annexed the Crimean peninsula with ease. Time certainly accounts for part of the difference; the Ukrainian military had been training for nearly a decade in preparation for another invasion. Billions upon billions of dollars worth of American and European weapons imports didn’t hurt, either. But one of the country’s biggest assets this time around is the 44-year-old comedian its citizens elected president in 2019.

Over the past three weeks, Volodymyr Zelensky has transformed into a George Washington or Winston Churchill-type figure before our very eyes. He’s remained in Kyiv with his team despite numerous threats on his life, rebuffing evacuation offers from Western countries. He’s mastered the public relations aspect of war, and his nightly addresses to the nation are already the stuff of legend. He’s put those skills to use on the international stage, tugging on his peers’ heartstrings in an effort to extract more support for his country and its cause. Some officials credit a five-minute Zelensky monologue on a video conference with European Union leaders in late February for the continent’s abrupt about-face on Russian sanctions.

With civilian casualties mounting and Russian airstrikes growing increasingly indiscriminate, Zelensky is making the rounds again, pleading with NATO countries to implement a no-fly zone over Ukraine, transfer additional military equipment to Ukrainian fighters, and tighten sanctions on Moscow even further. On Wednesday, it was Congress’ turn to hear from the leader.

Referencing Pearl Harbor, 9/11, and Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, Zelensky sought to frame Ukraine’s struggle in terms to which his audience would most relate. “Right now, the destiny of our country is being decided,” he told lawmakers through a translator, projected onto a large screen at the U.S. Capitol visitors’ center. “Russia has attacked not just us, not just our land, not just our cities; it went on a brutal offensive against our values, basic human values. It threw tanks and planes against our freedom, against our right to live freely in our own country, choosing our own future, against our desire for happiness, against our national dreams, just like the same dreams you have, you Americans, just like anyone else in the United States.”

After pausing for two-and-a-half minutes to air a heartbreaking, graphic video depicting the human toll of Russia’s invasion thus far, Zelensky finished his remarks in halting English. “Peace in your country doesn’t depend anymore only on you and your people; it depends on those next to you, on those who are strong,” he said. “Strong doesn’t mean big. Strong is brave and ready to fight for the life of his citizens and citizens of the world, human rights for freedom, for the right to live decently and to die when your time comes, and not when it’s wanted by someone else.”

“Today my age stopped when the heart of more than 100 children stopped beating,” he continued. “I see no sense in life if it cannot stop the deaths. And this is my main mission as the leader of my people, brave Ukrainians. And as the leader of my nation, I’m addressing the President Biden. You are the leader of the nation, of your great nation. I wish you to be the leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.” He received a thundering, bipartisan standing ovation.

The question coming out of the speech was whether that standing ovation would translate to a more hawkish stance toward the conflict. If Zelensky could change lawmakers’ hearts and minds about dramatically escalating the United States’ involvement in the war, maybe those lawmakers could force a change in Biden administration policy. That’s how things worked with the ban on Russian energy imports, after all.

But establishing a no-fly zone over Ukraine—which would lead to a direct confrontation between two nuclear powers—is a much greater ask. “The request to shut down the skies is compelling, but I think every one of us are deeply concerned about this spiraling into all-out war,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer, an Oregon Democrat, told reporters. “Putin is evil, and I don’t think any of us feel that it is beyond his capacity to use tactical nuclear weapons. I mean, he’s completely unhinged, untethered to reality, and we’re all playing with fire here.”

With a small handful of exceptions, Republicans landed in the same place. “Anytime you put American pilots and American planes in the sky with Russian pilots and planes in the sky, you’re really taking a chance that we may engage at a level that I don’t think we’re prepared to,” said Sen. Roy Blunt. Sen. Lindsey Graham—possibly the most hawkish member of the Senate—reiterated his opposition to a NATO no-fly zone after Zelensky’s speech. “We have to make decisions based on our national security interests, and not just emotional decisions,” he told reporters.

But Zelensky figured that would remain a sticking point, and had a contingency plan in place. “If [a no-fly zone] is too much to ask, we offer an alternative,” he said in his remarks. “You know what kind of defense systems we need, S-300 and other similar systems. You know how much depends on the battlefield on the ability to use aircraft, powerful, strong aviation to protect our people, our freedom, our land, aircraft that can help Ukraine, help Europe.”

On this point, lawmakers were much more amenable. Democratic Rep. Tom Malinowski of New Jersey said Zelensky’s approach was “exactly the right kind of emotional appeal to the American people without trying to play to our politics. It was a unifying speech.”

“The request was made in a way that we could answer it,” Malinowski noted. Zelensky, he said, showed “a degree of realism that I really respect” in asking for anti-aircraft defense systems, “because that is not only more possible, but actually a much more effective way of achieving his goal of clearing the skies.”

A few hours after Zelensky wrapped up his remarks, President Joe Biden announced the United States was transferring another $800 million worth of military equipment to Ukraine, on top of the $200 million authorized on Saturday. “The United States and our allies and partners are fully committed to surging weapons of assistance to the Ukrainians, and more will be coming as we source additional stocks of equipment that are ready to transfer,” he said, thanking Congress for appropriating the necessary funds. “This is a struggle that pits the appetites of an autocrat against humankind’s desire to be free. Let there be no doubt, no uncertainty, no question: America stands with the forces of freedom. We always have, and we always will.”

According to the White House, yesterday’s $800 million package will include 800 Stinger anti-aircraft systems and 9,000 anti-armor systems designed to take out tanks and armored vehicles. It also contains 7,000 small arms—machine guns, shotguns, and grenade launchers—as well as 20 million rounds of ammunition for those weapons, and 25,000 sets of body armor and helmets. But one Zelensky request—fighter jets—was notably absent.

“I’m not going to comment on that right now,” Biden said when asked about the omission. “I’m not going to comment on anything other than what I told you.”

As we noted last week, a potential deal to send Soviet-origin MiG-29 fighter jets to Ukraine—one that was given the green light by Secretary of State Antony Blinken—fell through a few days later after the Biden administration balked at Poland’s request that the United States facilitate the transfer of the aircraft. According to Pentagon spokesman John Kirby, the U.S. believes Russia may view such a transfer as “escalatory,” and that it could “result in significant Russian reaction that might increase the prospects of a military escalation with NATO.”

There are good-faith arguments to be made that practical, technical issues would keep the aircraft from being effective immediately, with changes required to make the jets combat-ready. But Biden himself warned that the conflict in Ukraine could be a “long and difficult battle,” and aircraft that can’t make a difference this week might provide a significant boost in a month or three months. And Zelensky’s speech has already started to spur lawmakers into action. Graham introduced a resolution yesterday urging the transfer of the jets, telling reporters he believes it would have wide support from both Republicans and Democrats if it came forward on the Senate floor. He said he trusts Zelensky’s assessment of Ukraine’s military needs more than “anybody else on the planet right now,” and that the United States should “honor” that request.

Worth Your Time

  • It’s become almost conventional wisdom in recent weeks to view Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as a death knell for the populist waves that have cropped up in the United States and elsewhere in recent years. It might be, but two pieces published yesterday argue this line of reasoning is oversimplified—and premature. “It’s reckless for liberals to declare victory based on shifts in the international order while simply waving domestic discontents away,” Ross Douthat writes in the New York Times. “Populism’s poor fit for this particular moment has given an opportunity to its enemies and critics. But they will squander the opportunity if they convince themselves that the external challenge has somehow made the internal crisis go away.” And in National Review, Michael Brendan Dougherty points out many of the forces coming to Ukraine’s aide are themselves populist. “‘Brexit’ Britain … has generously assisted Ukraine,” he notes. “Poland, led by the populist nationalist PIS—a mortal threat to democracy, according to The Atlantic—has been the leading country in NATO for assisting Ukrainian refugees and advocating an unmistakably strong response. The Polish prime minister went to Berlin himself and pled for such a response. Ukraine has also been assisted mightily by Turkey, led by the mini-Putinist strongman Reycep Erdogan.”

  • Christopher Miller’s latest dispatch from Ukraine is a difficult read, but an important one. “In a window of six days this month, Ahafiya Vyshyvana buried both of her sons, Vasyl and Kyrylo Vyshyvaniy, side by side, in plots that had been reserved for her and the boys’ father,” he writes from Duliby. “The roses piled atop Vasyl’s grave had barely wilted before she put Kyrylo in the ground on Tuesday.” And two Associated Press journalists—Mstyslav Chernov and Evgeniy Maloletka—represent the last known international media presence in the besieged city of Mariupol. “Airstrikes and shells have hit the maternity hospital, the fire department, homes, a church, a field outside a school. For the estimated hundreds of thousands who remain, there is quite simply nowhere to go,” their most recent article reads. “Food is running out, and the Russians have stopped humanitarian attempts to bring it in. Electricity is mostly gone and water is sparse, with residents melting snow to drink. Some parents have even left their newborns at the hospital, perhaps hoping to give them a chance at life in the one place with decent electricity and water. People burn scraps of furniture in makeshift grills to warm their hands in the freezing cold and cook what little food there still is. The grills themselves are built with the one thing in plentiful supply: bricks and shards of metal scattered in the streets from destroyed buildings. Death is everywhere. Local officials have tallied more than 2,500 deaths in the siege, but many bodies can’t be counted because of the endless shelling. They have told families to leave their dead outside in the streets because it’s too dangerous to hold funerals.”

Something Cool

(In case you missed it, check out TMD’s interview with Scott Acton—the James Webb Telescope scientist featured in that video—here.)

Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • REMINDER: There are just a few hours left to enter a bracket into TMD’s March Madness pool, alongside nearly 1,000 of your fellow readers so far! If you want to participate, click here to make your picks on ESPN (password: “TMD2K22!”), and then fill out this form so we can connect you with your ESPN entry and send the winners their prizes. Rachael Larimore, our managing editor, brings the most enthusiasm and knowledge on the staff to the contest, so she’ll be tough to beat. Jonah, on the other hand…

  • Wednesday’s Dispatch Podcast features a conversation between Steve and longtime diplomat and national security official (and frequent Dispatch contributor) Eric Edelman. They discuss the mind of Vladimir Putin,, Volodymyr Zelensky’s address to Congress, the challenges of negotiating with liars, the latest on the Iran deal (including Russia’s involvement), and what effect all of this will have on U.S. politics.

  • In this week’s Capitolism (🔒), Scott focuses on America’s domestic energy production—and why it’s a more complicated story than you might think. “By 2020 the total volumes of U.S. petroleum products production and consumption were basically even, and, following decades of talk about ‘energy independence’ and stuff, that may very well be a big deal… politically,” he writes. “In reality, however, the topline data hide several important lessons about global energy trade, comparative advantage, and real, long-term economic resiliency.”

  • Brookings Institution senior fellow Shadi Hamid returned to The Remnant on Wednesday for a discussion about America’s role in maintaining a safe global order. Will we soon see renewed support for Pax Americana? Should a no-fly zone be imposed over Ukraine?

  • For more on Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech to Congress, check out Jonah’s latest G-File (🔒). “I don’t blame Zelensky or the Ukrainians generally for trying to persuade us to [implement a no-fly zone],” he writes. “A lot of the people seem to think that the burden of restraint falls on Zelensky. I think this is utterly unrealistic and more than a little unfair. If you were in his shoes, do you really think you’d show such restraint?”

  • Following Tuesday night’s technical difficulties, Sarah and American Enterprise Institute senior fellow Adam White recorded a make-up edition of Dispatch Live for members (password: SCOTUS). David may have been replaced by a cat, but it’s still a great conversation about the coming Supreme Court term, Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson’s confirmation hearings, and Adam’s time on President Biden’s Supreme Court Commission. We really appreciate your patience as we work out what are hopefully the last few kinks.

Let Us Know

Do you think the Biden administration will eventually cave on implementing a no-fly zone over Ukraine? Should it? Where would you draw a red line? What about transferring the Polish jets?

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Charlotte Lawson (@lawsonreports), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).