President Zelensky’s second trip to Washington since the launch of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine has proven far tougher than the first, as he won warm words of support and weapons from Joe Biden but faced skeptical Republicans who want to cut off aid.
One of the most important – and disappointing – outcomes for Ukraine is that a new aid package announced by Biden does not include the long-requested ATACMS missiles that Kyiv had been hoping for.
Ukrainian officials had been confident that Washington was close to announcing it would finally provide the missiles that can strike up to 300 kilometers (190 miles) away.
Earlier this month Andriy Yermak, chief of staff to Zelensky, said: “Yes, we are talking about it … In every conversation with [US national security adviser] Jake Sullivan this question arises.
“They understand [ATACMS] are very much needed. I believe it will be agreed and very, very soon.”
Alas, they are not part of the latest aid package. It is assumed this is because of fears that Ukraine could use the enhanced capability to attack targets on Russian territory.
Zelensky and Biden presented a strong, united front, with Biden saying: “We’re with you and we’re staying with you.”
In response, Zelensky said Ukraine “has exactly what our soldiers need” after Biden announced the new package of US military aid.
Biden added that there was “no alternative” to backing the Ukraine funding, adding that he was “counting on the good judgment of the United States Congress.”
Speaking later at the National Archives, Zelensky said: “I assured President Biden that we in Ukraine will not give up and he assured me that America will be with us, as long as it takes.”
This was a very important visit to Washington, D.C.— Volodymyr Zelenskyy / Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) September 22, 2023
New military aid package. Long-term agreement on joint defense production. This historic step will create new industrial base and jobs for both of our nations.
My day began on Capitol Hill with candid and extensive… pic.twitter.com/Ro24E6k86D
But behind the visuals – firm handshakes across a grand cabinet table and shows of solidarity in the Oval Office – lay the fact that Zelensky’s second wartime trip to Washington was far tougher than the first, AFP reports.
Where Zelensky received a hero’s welcome when he visited in December, this time he spent his closed-door meetings in the US Congress desperately trying to overcome growing war fatigue from Republicans.
Hardline Republicans are threatening to block Democrat Biden’s request for a fresh $24 billion aid package for Ukraine, and it has now become caught up in a bitter spending battle that could spark a US government shutdown.
The United States' commitment to Ukraine will not weaken.— President Biden (@POTUS) September 22, 2023
Putin may still wrongly believe that he can outlast Ukraine.
Putin may doubt our staying power.
We will stand for liberty and freedom today, tomorrow, and for as long as it takes. pic.twitter.com/k1m1BgggvT
The key part of Zelensky’s visit was arguably to a deeply divided Congress. The pro-Trump faction dominating the Republican Party is increasingly adamant that the aid spigot should be turned off, with Congress having already approved $100 billion in aid to date, including $43 billion in weaponry.
On Capitol Hill, Zelensky got a notably discreet welcome from the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, who is having trouble keeping a lid on internal party squabbling over US spending in Ukraine.
Some Republicans say the money could be better spent on US border security, while there are also concerns about the pace of Kyiv’s counteroffensive and that corruption in Ukraine means the money will go to waste.
The doubts are being fueled by messaging from former president and likely 2024 candidate Donald Trump, who has opposed more funding and frequently expressed admiration for Russia’s Vladimir Putin.
It’s a trend that has also reached parts of the generally more pro-Ukraine Republicans in the Senate, where Senator Roger Marshall from Kansas said Congress should not be “sending another blank check to Zelensky.”
Democratic Senate leader Chuck Schumer from New York, a major supporter of Biden’s pro-Ukraine policies, said Zelensky had told him “if we don’t get the aid, we will lose the war.”
Disappointment over ATACMS aside, there were of course positive developments for Ukraine.
Biden said the first US M1 Abrams tanks will arrive in Ukraine “next week,” boosting Kyiv’s forces as they battle Russian troops in a slow-moving counteroffensive.
The latest US package would also strengthen Ukraine’s air defense capability, crucial at a time when the country faces repeated Russian missile and drone attacks.
The Pentagon later valued the package at $325 million. It includes air defense missiles, ammunition for HIMARS precision rocket launchers, anti-tank weapons, and artillery rounds.
In Washington, the Ukrainian leader arrived right after another wave of Russian missile strikes, hitting cities across the country and killing at least three people in Kherson and wounding many in other areas.
Zelensky thanked Biden for the “vital assistance provided by the United States to combat Russian terror, really terror.”
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