Zelensky faces Republican skeptics in Washington trip to counter war fatigue

Zelensky faces Republican skeptics in Washington trip to counter war fatigue
Zelensky faces Republican skeptics in Washington trip to counter war fatigue

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky (right) walks with Minority Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) as he arrives for a meeting with members of the US House of Representatives at the US Capitol on September 21, 2023 in Washington, DC. President Zelensky is in the nation's capital to meet with lawmakers after attending the United Nations General Assembly in New York. — AFP pic

WASHINGTON, Sept 21 — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky went to the US Congress today to face sceptical Republicans threatening to cut off massive aid for his country's fight against Russia and to reassure his American backers that Ukraine can win.

The United States has spearheaded Western support for Ukraine in its desperate fight against the full-scale invasion launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin in 2022. To date, more than US$100 billion in aid, including US$43 billion in weaponry, has been approved by Congress.

However, the hard-right faction dominating the Republican Party is increasingly adamant that the aid spigot should be turned off. Polls show that Republican voters have also gotten cold feet about supporting Ukraine, in part due to messaging from Donald who is seeking a return to the White House in 2024 and has frequently expressed admiration for Putin.

This means Zelensky's visit to Congress, followed by stops at the Pentagon and a meeting with President Joe Biden in the White House, will be far more challenging than his dramatic first trip in December 2022.

He secretly flew in and received a hero's welcome across Washington.

This time, there will be no big, televised speech before lawmakers. Instead, Zelensky started by meeting the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, who himself is having trouble keeping a lid on internal party squabbling over US spending in Ukraine.

Arriving right after another overnight wave of deadly missile attacks on his country, Zelensky said on social media that obtaining better US air defense capabilities was among his top priorities in the US capital.

Earlier this week, he attended the UN General Assembly meeting in New York where he accused Russia of committing "genocide" against his nation.

The White House said the Ukrainian leader's visit came at a "really critical time" as Ukraine's slow-moving counteroffensive against Russian forces grinds forward ahead of winter.

'Brutalise Ukraine'

Biden has pledged to stand by Kyiv no matter what. His 2024 reelection campaign is seeking to portray his steady support for Ukraine as a way of demonstrating his global leadership.

The US president and First Lady Jill Biden will greet Zelensky and his wife Olena Zelenska at the White House before the two leaders have head-to-head talks in the Oval Office, according to US officials.

Biden is "looking forward to getting a battlefield perspective directly from Ukraine's commander in chief," National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said.

Zelensky's reported request for longer-range ATACMS missiles that can strike up to 300 kilometers (190 miles) away is "not off the table" but there has been no decision yet, Kirby added.

"The president will be talking to President Zelensky about his needs and about how the United States will continue to meet those needs."

Biden, speaking Tuesday at the UN, warned against abandoning Ukraine. "Russia believes that the world will grow weary and allow it to brutalise Ukraine without consequence," he said.

His warning came a day before Poland said it would no longer arm Ukraine in a mounting row over grain exports. On Thursday, it clarified that it would fulfill existing arms supply deals.

'What's the plan?'

In Congress, Ukraine's fate is in part hostage to Republican wrangling over the US budget and a possible government shutdown.

Hard-right Republican lawmakers are holding up the White House's demand for any budget bill passed by Congress if it includes the further US$24 billion in military and humanitarian aid that the Biden administration wants to set aside for Kyiv.

Even relatively moderate Republicans are expressing doubts.

"What's the plan for victory? I think that's what the American public wants to know," McCarthy said this week.

Some 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. — AFP

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