Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in uniform, paid a wartime visit to the United States. This afternoon he met with US President Joe Biden and his team at the White House, and later this evening he will address Congress at a time when lawmakers are debating tens of billions in more aid to his country.
“We will support Ukraine in pursuing a just peace,” Biden told Zelensky. “You’re the man of the year,” and indeed a lot has changed in the last year since Russia began massing troops on the Ukrainian border.
The United States is the first country since the invasion of Russia that the Ukrainian president has visited. Zelenskyy was, in a sense, overdue for a visit, especially considering that Biden and his team have mobilized unprecedented military and financial assistance for Ukraine.
Congress to approve another $45 billion in aid to Ukraine and NATO allies, plus more than $65 billion in humanitarian and military aid which has already been sent since the beginning of the conflict. Coinciding with Zelenskyy’s visit, Biden will also announce a $1.85 billion military package with a Patriot missile battery strengthen Ukraine’s defenses against Russian attacks. “Thank you from our ordinary people to your ordinary people,” Zelensky told the White House.
Since Russia attacked Ukraine almost a year ago, Biden has done it too rejuvenated NATO and worked to ensure continued support from European partners for Ukraine. Internationally, the Biden administration has used the diplomatic prowess and clout of the United States as a convener to Ukraine’s advantage. The United States has been extraordinarily successful on this front, exerting intense action economic sanctions on Russia; transnational efforts to stem the ripple effects of war, particularly on energy e food safety; and UN votes that have sometimes embarrassed Russia.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Tony Blinken posted a meme on social media that She said, “The whole world is on the side of Ukraine.” That’s not entirely true. China and India are among the emerging powers that have not taken sides, and the fact that so many countries have not joined the sanctions on Russia is reminiscent of the misaligned movement during the Cold War.
All of which means that while Ukraine has some powerful allies in its war against Russia, the country, as Zelenskyy said at virtual events around the world this year, needs all the support it can get. Hence the trip to Washington, DC.
Why is the President of Ukraine visiting the United States
Timing-wise, this is as good a time as ever to visit, given the current relative lull of warfare. After Ukraine splendid counteroffensive this fall, the conflict continues, with Russia launching attacks on civilian infrastructure in Ukraine. But the war has leveled off on some levels, and Zelensky has apparently determined that these assaults do not require presidential attention inside the country.
The ongoing barrage of Russian attacks suggests that more monetary and diplomatic support will be needed. The war isn’t exactly a stalemate, but it looks increasingly likely that a sustained confrontation is likely. Ukraine’s infrastructure and industries have suffered and the country needs it at least $3 billion a month just to keep its economy going. And that is why Washington’s enduring role is so significant.
Overall, Zelenskyy’s message is that Ukraine is grateful for US support and will need much more.
This commitment goes beyond specific weapon systems. This visit is meant to “prepare the American public and Congress for the potential that this is going to go on for a while and Ukraine will need to be a long-term aid priority,” says Samuel Charap, a political scientist at the Rand Corporation.
This has been a busy day of public messaging, but what may be more important is the tenor of the closed-door conversations between Biden and Zelenskyy. We don’t have an in-depth understanding of their relationship, and the Biden administration has been particularly so leak proof, which gives us even less than usual insight into the inner workings of such a high-level relationship. There was some tension behind the scenes. In June, Biden lost his temper in a phone call as Zelenskyy pleaded for more and more help, according to a NBC report.
This is not Zelensky’s first visit to the Biden in the White House, and coordinated closely with the United States during the conflict. Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan visited Kiev last month. Zelenskyy addressed Congress virtually in March, and Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska addressed chambers in July. Both contrast with then-Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko’s 2014 speech, which called on the United States to supply his country with arms at a time when the Obama administration was limiting its assistance to non-lethal items. “You can’t win the war with blankets. You can’t keep the peace with blankets”, Poroshenko She said.
Zelenskyy must ensure that the Biden administration and Congress lead the coalition that the United States has assembled through 2023 and beyond. He will have had a successful visit if Americans—particularly Republicans in Congress—understand the immediate urgency of supplying Ukraine with advanced weapons and the deeper sense of Ukraine’s long-term perseverance in the face of Russian intransigence.
“The most likely endgame involves a new frozen conflict,” says Charles Kupchan, a scholar at the Council on Foreign Relations. “At least for now, Putin seems to be doubling down and not backing down.”
Because Zelensky has come now
As much as Ukraine needs continued help, Zelensky’s visit comes at a time when future US support is somewhat in doubt.
Other than the news of the June phone call between Zelenskyy and Biden, there were little indications that the executive branch had any plans to reduce its commitment to its Eastern European ally. Congress is a different story, however, and that branch is ultimately the one that decides how much money Ukraine gets.
Republicans, some of whom are less open to Ukrainian aid, are set to win back the House next year. While a senior administration official said the White House remained hopeful that support for additional military and humanitarian assistance would continue to be bipartisan, a segment of the House Republican caucus has already voiced its opposition.
Conservative lawmakers included Chip Roy Representatives (R-TX) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) are among those who questioned the need for more aid, while other senior Republicans, including Texas Representative Michael McCaul, the highest-ranking GOP member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, they supported the decision to send more support. This split within the conference could affect future assistance to Ukraine given the narrow Republican majority in the new term.
Previously, 57 House Republicans, or about a quarter of the conference, voted against sending $40 billion in aid last May, citing the need to cut back on spending due to high inflation. Prospective House Speaker Kevin McCarthy also expressed reservations about writing in Ukraine a “blank check” in the future, although he later explained that he meant there should be greater control and accountability of funds.
The White House says Zelenskyy’s visit is only meant to underscore ongoing U.S. solidarity with Ukraine as the conflict persists into its second year, according to the administration official. “It’s not about sending a message to any particular political party, it’s about sending a message to Putin and sending a message to the world that America will be there for Ukraine as long as it takes,” the official told reporters, when he asked if the remarks are aimed at Republicans reluctant to approve more aid. However, involving the GOP in any future funding requests will be critical to maintaining military aid.
Next year, the GOP-led House and Democrat-led Senate will likely have to compromise to advance more aid to Ukraine; to what extent they will be able to do this is somewhat uncertain. Many Republicans, including key leaders such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, have expressed strong support for Ukraine. But the opposition that such bills could encounter in the House could jeopardize their approval.
For their part, Democrats this week stressed that the stakes are high should Congress end, or even limit, its support for Ukraine. “America and our allies have proudly answered your call: impose devastating sanctions on Putin and ensure that Ukraine has the resources it needs to win this war,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi wrote in a letter. formally inviting Zelenskyy for the speech. “The fight for Ukraine is the fight for democracy itself.”
President Joe Biden walks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy through the colonnade of the White House December 21, in Zelenskyy’s first trip abroad since Russia invaded Ukraine in February. Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images