Ukraine war: Zelenskiy fights Washington scepticism as he tries to shore up support

Appeal for more aid comes as polls show a growing weariness over the war among US public

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy made his second wartime visit to Washington on Thursday night and warned lawmakers that his country would fall to Russia if the United States curtailed the military and financial aid that has helped Kyiv withstand a grinding onslaught but has not given the Ukrainians an upper hand.

Mr Zelenskiy’s visit – and his warning – comes as Ukraine struggles to break through Russian front lines and some Republican lawmakers grow increasingly sceptical of Kyiv’s slow-moving counteroffensive. On Thursday, Russia launched a missile attack on cities across Ukraine, including the capital, hours after Zelenskiy denounced Russia’s “criminal and unprovoked aggression” against his country before the United Nations Security Council.

At the White House, standing beside president Joe Biden, Mr Zelenskiy told reporters that his trip to the capital was “very important”. On Capitol Hill, he bluntly explained why.

“If we don’t get the aid, we will lose the war,” Mr Zelenskiy said in a meeting at the Capitol with dozens of senators, as recounted by Democratic senator Chuck Schumer, the majority leader.


At the White House, Biden praised the Ukrainian people for their “enormous bravery,” while Mr Zelenskiy focused squarely on securing more aid “with a special emphasis on air”. On Thursday, Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden’s national security adviser, said the United States would supply aid to provide Ukraine with “significant” air defence capabilities.

But he did not say whether the package included a powerful weapon called the Army Tactical Missile System, known as ATACMS, which can strike targets 305km (190 miles) away with a warhead containing about 170kg of explosives.

Mr Zelenskiy came to Washington to make an appeal for more aid, even as polls have shown a growing weariness over the war among the American public, and as dozens of republicans say they are opposed to Mr Biden’s latest request to Congress for $24 billion for additional military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. Mr Biden has bucked Republican concerns, pledging that the United States – by far the largest military funder of Ukraine among its Western allies – will stay with Kyiv for the long haul.

But Washington has changed in the nine months since Zelenskiy was invited to deliver a joint address to Congress – complete with vice-president Kamala Harris and Nancy Pelosi, then-speaker of the House, brandishing a Ukrainian flag signed by soldiers on the front line.

Back then, Biden, who harboured serious doubts about Zelenskiy’s longevity as a leader at the outset of the invasion, had started to greet the Ukrainian leader like an old friend during regular phone calls. Biden secretly visited Kyiv in February.

These days, Biden faces sinking approval numbers and concerns about his age as he campaigns for re-election. Republicans now control the House, which has descended into chaos in recent days as lawmakers seem unwilling to agree on passing spending legislation that would avert a government shutdown. And insurgent members are threatening to relieve speaker Kevin McCarthy of his gavel.

In a show of bipartisan comity, Mr Zelenskiy, dressed in dark-olive fatigues, was escorted through the Capitol during his visit by Schumer and Republican Senator Mitch McConnell, the minority leader.

“American support for Ukraine is not charity,” Mr McConnell said in a statement. “It’s in our own direct interests – not least because degrading Russia helps to deter China.”

Mr Zelenskiy was given a different reception from Mr McCarthy. The speaker, who is under pressure to take a hard line amid demands in his caucus for spending cuts, told reporters that Mr Zelenskiy had already had his chance to deliver a congressional address. Mr McCarthy had a private meeting Mr Zelenskiy on Thursday, and both men were cordial. But he has also publicly questioned supporting the war.

“Where is the accountability on the money we already spent?” Mr McCarthy asked reporters this week. “What is the plan for victory? I think that’s what the American public wants to know.”

In a smaller, closed-door meeting Thursday, Republican lawmakers asked Mr Zelenskiy to address their concerns and provide them with his vision of a plan for victory. And Democrats asked him how they could convince their conservative colleagues that continuing to support the war was the right answer.

Mr Zelenskiy’s visit, which included a stop at a United Nations summit this week, comes at a crucial moment in the war, with Ukraine’s fight against Russian invaders heading into the harsh winter months. In Washington, he seemed intent on emphasising the toll of the war as well as personally appealing to lawmakers: After visiting Capitol Hill, he to the Pentagon and stopped at a memorial to 9/11, closing his eyes while a bugle played.

Later, Mr Zelenskiy brought his wife, Olena, to the meeting at the White House. Since the beginning of the war, the Zelenskyis have tried to build personal relationships with Mr Biden and first lady Jill Biden. Olena Zelenska has spent much of her time in hiding since the beginning of the war, but she has written letters to Jill Biden, and the two of them met last year in Ukraine when the first lady took a secret trip to the country.

“It’s good that our countries are really truly allies,” Mr Zelenskiy said, reading from a set of cards as he sat next to the president at the White House. “I am in Washington to strengthen Ukraine’s position to defend our children, our families, our homes, freedom and democracy in the world.” – This article originally appeared in The New York Times