UNITED STATES NEWS

Zelenskyy delivers upbeat message to US lawmakers on war progress as some Republican support softens

Sep 20, 2023, 9:03 PM | Updated: Sep 21, 2023, 2:46 pm

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Volodymyr Zelenskyy worked to shore up U.S. support for Ukraine on a whirlwind visit to Washington on Thursday, delivering an upbeat message on the war’s progress while facing new questions about the flow of American dollars that for 19 months has helped keep his troops in the fight against Russian forces.

The Ukrainian leader received a far quieter reception than the hero’s welcome he got last year, but also won generally favorable comments on the aid he says he needs to stave off defeat. His arrival was treated with more pomp at the White House, where a red carpet arrival on the South Lawn, followed by time in the Oval Office, an expanded gathering in the East Room and one-on-one time for the two first ladies, was a more grand reception than world leaders typically get.

Zelenskyy, in long-sleeve olive drab, came to the Capitol with a firm message in private talks with Republican and Democratic leaders. The Ukrainians have a solid war plan, and “they are winning,” lawmakers quoted him as assuring them, at a time that the world is watching Western support for Kyiv.

President Joe Biden and first lady Jill Biden welcomed Zelenskyy and his wife, Olena Zelenska, later at the White House, where Zelenskyy described thanking members of Congress for their “big, huge support.” Biden was clear in his backing.

“The American people are determined to see to it that we do all we can to ensure the world stands with you,” Biden assured Zelenskyy, projecting White House support of Ukraine to other nations as well. “That is our overwhelming objective.”

The serious tone was evident earlier, too, at the Pentagon, where Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin greeted Zelenskyy without the usual ceremonial band and other fanfare.

At the Capitol, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who faces opposition among far-right Republicans aligned with former President Donald Trump on support for Ukraine, notably chose not to join House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries in greeting the Ukrainian president when he arrived.

McCarthy also confirmed that he declined Zelenskyy’s request for a joint session of Congress, as happened during the Ukrainian president’s dramatic visit to Washington last winter, saying there wasn’t time for that on short notice.

But McCarthy praised the answers that Ukrainians delivered to lawmakers Thursday.

“It was direct, I thought it was honest, they were answering the questions,” McCarthy said. “I heard a lot of positive things.

Republican House lawmakers described questioning Zelenskyy on the way forward for Ukraine’s counteroffensive, as the fight to roll back invading Russian forces moves closer to the two-year mark without major breakthroughs in Russia’s heavily mined lines.

Zelensky “conceded that it’s tough, very tough to overcome entrenched defenses,” Independent Sen. Angus King said. “They believe they will make slow but steady progress, but it’s not going to be quick.”

It is Zelenskyy’s second visit to Washington since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 and comes as Biden’s request to Congress for an additional $24 billion for Ukraine’s military and humanitarian needs is hanging in the balance.

Back home, Russian launched its heaviest strikes in a month in the hours before Zelenskyy’s arrival at Congress, killing three, igniting fires and damaging energy infrastructure as Russian missiles and artillery pounded cities across Ukraine.

Zelenskyy in his White House stop stressed Ukraine’s need for strengthened air defense systems to fend off Russian missiles and drones.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan underscored Thursday that Biden would seek to drive home with Zelenskyy’s visit that the U.S. and the world “send the unmistakable message that in the 21st century, a dictator cannot be allowed to conquer or carve up his neighbor’s territory.”

“If we allow that here. it will happen elsewhere in ways that will undermine the fundamental security, not to mention the values that the American people hold so dear,” Sullivan said.

Biden has called on world leaders to stand strong with Ukraine, even as he faces domestic political divisions at home. A hard-right flank of Republicans, led by Trump, Biden’s chief rival in the 2024 race for the White House, is increasingly opposed to sending more money overseas.

Zelenskyy faces challenges in Europe as well as cracks emerge in what had been a largely united Western alliance behind Ukraine.

Late Wednesday, Poland’s prime minister said his country is no longer sending arms to Ukraine, a comment that appeared aimed at pressuring Kyiv and put Poland’s status as a major source of military equipment in doubt as a trade dispute between the neighboring states escalates.

Zelenskyy’s visit comes with U.S. and world government leaders watching as Ukrainian forces struggle to take back territory that Russia gained over the past year. Their progress in the next month or so before the rains come and the ground turns to mud could be critical to rousing additional global support over the winter. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who believes he can outlast allied backing for Kyiv, will be ready to capitalize if he sees Ukraine is running low on air defense or other weapons.

The administration announced another $325 million Thursday in what’s known as presidential drawdown assistance for Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the package would include additional air defense, artillery ammunition, cluster munitions and other arms.

Since the start of the war, most members of Congress supported approving four rounds of aid to Ukraine, totaling about $113 billion, viewing defense of the country and its democracy as an imperative, especially when it comes to containing Putin. Some of that money went toward replenishing U.S. military equipment sent to the frontlines.

The political environment has shifted markedly since Zelenskyy addressed Congress last December on his first trip out of Ukraine since the war began. He was met with rapturous applause for his country’s bravery and surprisingly strong showing in the war.

His meeting with senators on Thursday took place behind closed doors in the Old Senate Chamber, a historic and intimate place of importance at the U.S. Capitol, signifying the respect the Senate is showing the foreign leader.

Zelenskyy received a warm welcome from both parties on his stop in the Senate. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer flanked him as he walked in. A few lawmakers of both parties wore clothes with blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Schumer told reporters afterward one sentence summed up the meeting: “Mr. Zelenskyy said if we don’t get the aid, we will lose the war.”

Senate Republican leader McConnell, who is trying to keep his party in line behind support for Ukraine, said afterward he was proud to welcome Zelenskyy to the Capitol.

“Americans’ support for Ukraine is not a charity,” he said. “It’s an investment in our own self-interest.”

___

Associated Press writers Seung Min Kim, Kevin Freking, Tara Copp, Lolita M. Baldor, Colleen Long, Aamer Madhani and Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.

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Zelenskyy delivers upbeat message to US lawmakers on war progress as some Republican support softens