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Zelensky blitzes Washington in urgent effort to shore up support

The last time Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited Washington, it was a top-secret trip and his first trip outside his country since Russia invaded Ukraine. He received a hero’s welcome at the White House and Capitol that December day, evoking comparisons with British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s wartime visit to Washington in 1941.

Zelensky returned here on Thursday under radically different circumstances. A growing number of Republicans are vowing to reject additional aid to Ukraine as a U.S. government shutdown approaches. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) rejected the Ukrainian leader’s request to speak at a joint session of Congress, and Zelensky was unable to tout major progress in the current counter-offensive of his army against Russia.

For Zelensky, the immediate challenge was convincing lawmakers to support the Biden administration’s latest request for $24 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. “I am in Washington to strengthen Ukraine’s position to defend our children, our families, our homes, freedom and democracy around the world,” Zelensky said at the start of his meeting with President Biden in the Oval Office .

Privately, his request was even more serious: “If we don’t get the aid, we will lose the war,” Zelensky told Senate members in a closed-door meeting, according to the Senate majority leader. Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.).

Perhaps the most important meeting of Zelensky’s trip to Washington was with McCarthy, who is navigating a right-wing rebellion among House Republicans over spending on Ukraine and other issues. Instead of convening a grand forum for Zelensky to appeal to House lawmakers — as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did in his chamber — McCarthy met privately with the Ukrainian leader and bombarded him with questions related to responsibility, strategy and tactics. , said people familiar with the meeting, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive exchange.

McCarthy focused specifically on the question of how open-ended the conflict might be and whether Ukraine’s military is using U.S.-supplied weapons responsibly, the sources said.

Ukrainians do not view McCarthy’s tough questions as isolationist or politicized, the people familiar with the meeting said. kyiv views McCarthy as a sympathetic, if embattled, figure whose presidency is under enormous strain. Both sides believed the meeting was productive despite Ukraine’s apprehensions over collapsing support from House Republicans, the sources said.

McCarthy expressed appreciation for Zelensky’s leadership on Thursday, praising his efforts to root out corruption by replacing his defense minister and firing other officials working in defense procurement, changes that McCarthy said had been ” requested.” And some of McCarthy’s allies have suggested he favors providing more weapons to Ukraine.

“The speaker, like me, showed strong support,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters after his meeting with Zelensky. “But we are frustrated by the administration’s slow pace in (providing) the weapons.”

He said McCarthy’s “takeaway” was that Ukraine needed ATACMS missiles – a type of long-range precision artillery that many hawks in Congress have pushed for – as well as warplanes F-16, and that she needed these things “yesterday”.

Biden announced a new military assistance package to Ukraine including artillery, munitions and air defense capabilities. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said ATACMS missiles were not part of that package but that Biden had not taken them “off the table going forward.”

Ukraine has promised it will not use Western weapons to strike targets in Russia, preferring to strike arms depots and logistics centers in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.

But while Democrats have lined up behind Biden’s proposed aid plan, more hardline Republicans want to see the flow of aid cut off entirely, and McCarthy has refused to publicly support more funding for Ukraine. At times, the speaker echoed the skepticism of some of the more conservative members of his conference, raising concerns about a lack of accountability on funding and arguing that Ukraine did not have a “plan to win.”

McCarthy, who spent the week struggling to calm a tumultuous conflict among House Republicans over funding the U.S. government, rejected Zelensky’s request to deliver a joint speech to Congress because of “what we are in we find ourselves in the middle.” Zelensky delivered such a speech during his visit to Washington last year, receiving enthusiastic applause from both sides of the aisle.

McCarthy on Thursday was also noticeably absent from Zelensky’s Capitol photo ops, which were joined by other congressional leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

McConnell: No excuse not to support more aid to Ukraine

Biden, on the other hand, has remained unequivocal in his support for Ukraine, arguing that if the world’s democracies abandon Ukraine, it would have devastating consequences and encourage other autocrats to invade neighboring countries. At the United Nations this week, the president sought to rally the world to continue supporting Ukraine, despite the economic hardship some countries are feeling.

At the White House on Thursday, Biden said the United States was committed to “supporting a just and lasting peace that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”

“No nation can be truly safe in the world if, in fact, we do not stand up and defend Ukraine’s freedom in the face of this aggression and this brutality and this assault,” Biden said.

For Zelensky, the visit to Washington came just after Russia launched its largest missile attacks against Ukraine in weeks, adding urgency to his call for additional funding. Sullivan said Zelensky is keenly aware of the U.S. political climate, with aid to Ukraine hanging in the balance while Congress remains mired in spending battles.

“President Zelensky is not coming here like a baby in the woods, not understanding that, you know, we have to work as we approach the end of the fiscal year for government funding,” Sullivan said. “He recognizes that this is going to be contested, that there are different perspectives.”

Nonetheless, Sullivan said, the White House remains confident that Congress will eventually pass the additional funding for Kyiv.

“There is a very small minority of members who raise questions,” he said. “There is a very strong and overwhelming majority of members, both Democrats and Republicans, who want the aid to continue, and I believe the American people do as well. So I think that will shine through.

But ultimately, despite the White House’s ardent support for Ukraine, U.S. officials made clear that their ability to help Kiev would be severely limited if Congress did not approve the White House aid package. . The future of this funding remains uncertain, especially as the dismay of Republicans in the House of Representatives appears to bring the shutdown of the US government closer.

“I rely on the good judgment of the United States Congress,” Biden said. “There is no alternative.”

For the second time this week, House Republicans lost a vote Thursday in favor of a Defense Department appropriations bill, part of a broader battle between House factions. extreme right and moderates of the party for financing the government.

Republican leaders are also struggling to advance a stopgap bill that would fund the U.S. government beyond the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. This bill would continue funding Ukraine’s war effort at current levels, something some oppose. hardline conservatives who want to end US support for kyiv.

After meeting with lawmakers, Zelensky told reporters he had a “frank and constructive dialogue” at the Capitol. In the Senate, members of both parties called the gathering respectful — Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pennsylvania) said the Ukrainian leader showed “a lot of seriousness” — but said Zelensky’s message also conveyed a sense of urgency.

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Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) said senators did not hesitate to ask Zelensky tough questions during the closed-door meeting.

“What would you say to my constituents who are wondering if we should spend all this money? “,” Blumenthal said, giving an example of the type of questions that were asked. “And of course the answer is: ‘They are on the front lines against Putin, and he will continue if he doesn’t stop there.'”

Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who asked Zelensky what Ukraine’s most pressing needs were, said the Ukrainian leader reiterated his calls for air defense.

“Not only for their military, but also to protect their energy system, their water and their electricity,” King said. “And that’s something that I think we need to continue to work on, and we need to work with our allies.”

During his day in Washington, Zelensky, accompanied by his wife, Olena Zelenska, visited the Pentagon and laid flowers at the Pentagon National September 11 Memorial. He also met with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin; Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and other military leaders.


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