Sep 21, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Zelensky's frosty welcome to D.C.

Volodymyr Zelensky at the Capitol on Thursday. Photo: Ting Shen/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Nine months ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky secretly left his war-torn country for the first time to deliver an emotional joint address to Congress.

Why it matters: The two-minute standing ovation he received — from both Democrats and Republicans — looks like a distant dream compared to what he faced on his second wartime trip to Washington Thursday.

The big picture: President Biden's vow to support Ukraine for "as long as it takes" is at serious risk of being undermined.

  • The effectiveness of Zelensky's personal appeals has also been challenged, as dozens of Republicans used his visit as an occasion to snub Ukraine's requests and mock its wartime leader.

Driving the news: Led by Sen. J.D. Vance (R-Ohio) and Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), six Republican senators and 22 House members sent a letter to the White House Thursday opposing Biden's request for $24 billion in additional aid for Ukraine.

  • House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) privately met with Zelensky but denied his request to address a joint meeting of Congress. "We just didn't have time," the embattled speaker told reporters.
  • Under pressure from conservative hardliners who are refusing to allow a vote on funding the Pentagon, GOP leadership is now considering stripping any Ukraine-related provisions from the bill as Republicans struggle to avert a government shutdown.
  • "There's no money in the House right now for Ukraine," Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.), a member of the right-wing Freedom Caucus, told reporters. "It's not a good time for [Zelensky] to be here, quite frankly."

The intrigue: A Ukrainian source told Axios the meeting Zelensky had with McCarthy and other House members was very open and direct.

  • The source said Zelensky was encouraged in a way from what he heard from the lawmakers, but that he departed Capitol Hill "very realistic" about the way things were when it comes to the House.
  • McCarthy publicly delivered a passionate defense of Ukraine's war effort when confronted by a Russian reporter in May, but his personal views may be of little consequence given his tenuous grip over the House GOP conference.
Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Between the lines: It's not just Republicans who disappointed Zelensky.

  • The Biden administration has opted not to provide Ukraine with long-range missiles known as ATACMS that would allow Kyiv to strike well behind Russian lines.
  • Biden "is not taking it off the table in the future," national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters, but the decision came as a disappointment to Ukrainian officials who were optimistic the request would be met.
  • Back in Europe, the Polish government announced it would stop sending arms to Ukraine as tensions between the two close allies have spiraled over grain imports.

The other side: The White House and the vast majority of senators remain united behind Ukraine.

  • Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) told Axios that Zelensky threw away his prepared notes in a closed-door meeting with all 100 senators: "He spoke from the heart and his message was clear — we cannot waver at this moment, and any wavering would be a win for Vladimir Putin and his war of aggression."
  • Van Hollen said several senators, mainly Republicans, asked Zelensky how they should explain to their constituents why the U.S. should give more aid to Ukraine. "But they were not suggesting that they were opposed to giving more aid to Ukraine," Van Hollen added.
  • Biden met with Zelensky in the White House's Cabinet room and announced that the first U.S. Abrams tanks will arrive in Ukraine next week. He also unveiled a new military aid package valued at $325 million, which includes anti-tank missiles and air defense technology.
  • The Pentagon, meanwhile, plans to exempt Ukraine operations in the event of a government shutdown on Oct. 1, allowing training on American weapons and tactics to continue, Politico reports.

The bottom line: "There was a single sentence that summed it all up, and I'm quoting him verbatim," Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) told reporters after meeting with Zelensky. "'If we don't get the aid, we will lose the war.'"

  • At the top of Biden's expanded meeting with Zelensky, the Ukrainian president was asked by reporters whether he thinks Congress will approve additional aid.
  • Biden answered in his place: "I'm counting on the good judgment of the United States Congress. There is no alternative."

Go deeper: Biden announces $325 million in Ukraine aid during Zelensky visit

Go deeper