Zelenskyy’s Battle to Win Over Washington

From a story on politico.com by Gabriel Gavin headlined “Zelenskyy’s battle to win over Washington”:

The last time Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Washington, he received a hero’s welcome. Speaking at a December joint session of Congress, the Ukrainian president, wearing his trademark green army sweater, was forced to pause his speech as senators and representatives, Democrats and Republicans, gave him a standing ovation.

“Your support is crucial to get to the turning point to win on the battlefield,” he told U.S. politicians at the time.

Now, expected back in Washington for the first time in nine months for talks with President Joe Biden this week, Zelenskyy will find a changed city. American politicians are more reluctant with their applause — and their support.

With the initial bipartisan unity in response to the start of Moscow’s full-blown invasion fading, the conflict, like all issues in Washington, is becoming political. Amid frustration on both sides of the Atlantic that Ukraine’s long-awaited summer counteroffensive seemingly achieved fewer results than expected, senior Republicans like House Speaker Kevin McCarthy are becoming increasingly Kyiv-skeptic.

At one time, anything but full-throated support for Zelenskyy and those defending the country against Russian aggression was limited to the partisan fringes. Today, McCarthy is asking that future support packages be debated as standalone bills rather than tacked on to broader government spending plans, making them easier to defeat. Hardline Republicans in Congress are against any additional aid to Ukraine, and public opinion among Republicans has also shifted against aid to Ukraine in the last year.

That includes an additional $24 billion in military and humanitarian aid that the White House is hoping to have signed off as part of President Joe Biden’s policy to help Ukraine for “as long as it takes.” His unlikely allies, Senate Republicans, are reportedly considering introducing a continuing resolution to keep funding the war and avoid a government shutdown, while less moderate politicians in the House remain split on the plans.

Already, myths about the scale of spending are picking up pace ahead of next year’s elections. There is talk of “blank checks” for Kyiv taking money out the pockets of hard-working Americans. In reality, the combined total of the U.S.’s four rounds of aid to Ukraine amounts to an estimated $113 billion — a small fraction compared to total government spending that last year reached $6.27 trillion.

To secure another round of funding, which would guarantee supplies of critical weaponry and ammunition ahead of what most analysts expect will be a grueling winter standoff, Zelenskyy will have to reassure skeptics that the money is going where it’s needed most. And that means getting a handle on corruption.

To try and win over hearts and minds in Washington and elsewhere, the Ukrainian president has presented plans to consider wartime grift on par with treason. At the same time, ahead of the transatlantic visit today, Zelenskyy sought to play down fears that the war had ground to a halt.

“The situation is tough. We stopped the Russians in the east and started a counteroffensive. Yes, it is not that fast but we are going forward every day and de-occupying our land,” he said.

In a speech at the U.N. today, Biden reaffirmed his commitment to Zelenskyy and Ukraine, arguing, “No nation wants this war to end more than Ukraine. Russia alone bears responsibility, has power to end war, and stands in the way of peace… [the U.N. must] stand up to this naked aggression.”

But unlike last year, Biden’s remarks on Ukraine played second fiddle to other foreign policy goals, coming nearly 20 minutes into his address.

Zelenskyy, for his part, said today at the U.N. that his nation’s fight against Russia was about more than just his country: “Many seats in the General Assembly hall may become empty if Russia succeeds with its treachery and aggression.”

While White House and European leaders are on his side, the Ukrainian president will have to convince those wavering in Congress that sticking with him and ensuring Russia can’t, quite literally, get away with murder remains a worthy cause. And those in Washington will have to choose their battle.

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