Ukraine's leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy invokes 1941 Pearl Harbour attack and iconic speech of Martin Luther King Jr in his impassioned video plea to US Congress for aid against Russia's military offensive.

Ukrainian President Zelenskyy delivers a virtual address to US Congress by video at the Capitol in Washington on March 16, 2022.
Ukrainian President Zelenskyy delivers a virtual address to US Congress by video at the Capitol in Washington on March 16, 2022. (AP)

Ukraine's leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy has made a desperate appeal for help against Moscow to the US Congress, and within hours of the speech, President Joe Biden responded by promising $1 billion in new weapons to fight Russia's forces.

The Ukrainian president's video address on Wednesday from embattled Kiev, bolstered by a montage of horrific TV footage of Ukrainian civilians under Russian assault, delivered an emotional gut-punch to US lawmakers.

Bearded and dressed in a military green T-shirt, the Ukrainian leader invoked September 11 and Pearl Harbor as he pleaded again for a Western-enforced no-fly zone to bar Russian warplanes, something Biden has rejected as almost certainly leading to what he says would be "World War III."

More than three weeks into the offensive that has claimed hundreds of civilian lives and turned more than three million Ukrainians into refugees, Zelenskyy said his country was battling "a terror that Europe has not seen... for 80 years."

"Remember Pearl Harbour, terrible morning of December 7, 1941, when your sky was black from the planes attacking you," he said, recalling the air raid that brought the United States into World War II.

"Protect our sky," he said.

READ MORE: Ukrainian director turns to camera to document conflict

New batch of weapons 

But in a nod to Western concerns, Zelenskyy added that an alternative to the no-fly zone would be more powerful weapons to allow Ukrainians to defend themselves.

Just hours later, Biden delivered his response: an extra $800 million in military aid, which added to another installment last week brings the latest deliveries to $1 billion –– and $2 billion since Biden took office.

The new batch includes 800 Stinger anti-aircraft systems, thousands of anti-tank weapons including 2,000 of the now-famously deadly Javelin rockets, 100 "tactical" drones, 20 million rounds of small arms ammunition and 25,000 sets of helmets and body armour.

Ukraine has already been given hundreds of Stingers, which can shoot down relatively low flying aircraft.

But Biden said that "at the request of President Zelensky, we have identified and are helping Ukraine acquire additional longer-range anti-aircraft systems."

A US military source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the weapons system under discussion was the S-300, a sophisticated missile that is of Russian design but owned by some European NATO members and seen as easy to integrate into Ukraine's military.

The drones mentioned by Biden are a US weapon called Switchblade, which has the ability to loiter over a target, before plunging down like a bomb, the military source said.

READ MORE: Could the Ukraine conflict spill over into Eastern Europe?

Recalling MLK's speech 

Biden also ramped up the rhetorical offensive against the Kremlin, telling reporters for the first time that Putin "is a war criminal." Putin's spokesman called this "unacceptable and unforgivable."

Emotions were running high in Washington after what some called the most dramatic speech by a foreign leader to Congress since Britain's ex-prime minister Winston Churchill in 1941.

But it was an iconic speech by US civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr that Zelenskyy, a TV comedian turned leader, channeled in his desperate plea for assistance against Russia's bombs.

"I have a dream, these words are known to each of you today I can say. I have a need, I need to protect our sky. I need your decision, your help," he said.

Zelenskyy spoke in Ukrainian initially but ended his speech in English, addressing Biden directly with an appeal for him to be the world's "leader of peace."

Zelenskyy's appearance –– greeted by a standing ovation in the US Capitol complex –– came less than a week after lawmakers green-lit nearly $14 billion in humanitarian and military aid for his country.

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Source: AFP