NEW YORK — Americans reacted with empathy, pain, frustration and in some cases anger Wednesday to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s impassioned speech to the U.S. Congress pleading for more aid for a nation and a people under bloody siege.
Across the country, thousands shared video of Zelenskyy’s speech on social media, many especially pained by a clip he shared of bloodied children in hospitals, bodies in neighborhood streets, crumbling facades of apartment buildings and a ditch where the dead of war were being buried.
Many were struck by Zelenskyy’s comment that “I see no sense in life if it cannot stop the death.”
Eric Bottoms, a day trader from North Little Rock, Arkansas, said after watching the speech that America has an obligation to protect the citizens of Ukraine because Russian President Putin is “purposely targeting” them.
“It’s morally the right thing to do,” Bottoms said, comparing relative inaction to failing to stop Nazi Germany’s early aggressions in the last century. “If we’d done something earlier, how many more lives could have been saved?”
At Streecha, a tiny New York City restaurant that offers Ukrainian comfort food, a small group of workers watched Zelenskyy’s remarks live on TV. The canteen’s manager, Dmytro Kovalenko, moved to the U.S. from Ukraine in 2014 after the Russian invasion of Crimea.
Kovalenko said he still believed his home country could win the war if America offered more help, like anti-aircraft weapons or the enforcement of a no-fly zone. The latter option has been ruled out, for now, by the U.S. for fear of escalating the war.
“United States proved to be our friends and allies supporting us,” Kovalenko said. “Maybe they can do more. We will expect from them to do more. But at least you already proved you are our friends.”
Zelenskyy cited Pearl Harbor and the Sept. 11 terror attacks as he appealed to Congress to do more to help Ukraine’s fight against Russia. He also appealed for intensified U.S. financial sanctions against Russia.
It was appropriate for Zelenskyy to draw on the horrors of 9/11 and Pearl Harbor in his appeal to Americans, said Taisa Kulyk, a 22-year-old Harvard University senior and Cleveland, Ohio, native whose parents immigrated from Ukraine in 1996. “Ukraine is experiencing this every day, every night for three weeks now,” Kulyk said. “The world cannot just stand by and bear witness to terrorism on this scale.”
Zelenskyy “appealed to the American experience of terror, thus speaking directly to American voters,” said Oleh Kotsyuba, a 41-year-old scholar at Harvard’s Ukrainian Research Institute who is originally from Ukraine.
President Joe Biden announced after Zelenskyy’s speech that the U.S. will be sending an additional $800 million in military aid to Ukraine, including more anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons and drones. That makes a total of $2 billion in such aid sent to Kyiv since Biden took office more than a year ago.
In the Detroit suburb of Warren, Michigan, dozens of Ukrainian Americans watched as the flag of their homeland was raised in front of City Hall. Among them was Luba Kytasta, who described her initial reaction to Zelenskyy’s speech as: “Heartbreak, rage, outrage and hope.”
The outrage, Kytasta said, stemmed from “what’s happening to my people, to my country that I was born in,” as well as with Russian President Vladimir Putin, who she said “wants to kill all of us, not only in Ukraine, because we’re suffering here, too.”
“I can’t eat, I can’t sleep – pretty much like all the other Ukrainians,” she said. “This is the only thing that’s on your mind.”
Kytasta said Zelenskyy’s address did provide her with hope, though.
“He’s very resolute. He’s very focused. Pretty much like all the Ukrainian fighters,” said Kytasta, who added, “I hope to God” his speech makes a difference.
The ever-lingering question of What to Do dominated social media posts reacting to Zelenskyy’s speech. A sense of anger — and helplessness — was paramount. Many said they could not sit back and let the carnage continue. Others warned that acceding to Zelenskyy’s requests for air power or anti-aircraft missiles could lead to World War III.
Still others criticized U.S. lawmakers who applauded Zelenskyy on Wednesday but had voted against impeaching and convicting then-President Donald Trump for withholding U.S. military aid to Zelenskyy’s government in 2019.
In Warren, Mykola Murskyj, with the Ukrainian-American Crisis Response Committee of Michigan, said he has lost 9 pounds worrying about friends and family since the war started.
“We’re spending every waking moment working for Ukraine,” said Murskyj, who watched Zelenskyy’s speech online in the kitchen of his sister’s Detroit-area home.
“It was a very moving address,” he said. “There are mothers and children dying in the streets, apartments being bombed, nuclear power plants being attacked — things that a month ago were completely unimaginable in Europe.
“And now they’re happening, and we have to do something.”