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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made a whirlwind return visit to Washington on Thursday to shore up US support for Ukraine, this time facing some Republicans who are now questioning the flow of American dollars that for 19 months has helped keep his troops in the fight against Russian forces.
Zelensky, in long-sleeve olive drab, came to the Capitol to talk privately with Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate at a time that the world is watching Western support for Kyiv. He will also meet with President Joe Biden at the White House and will speak with US military leaders at the Pentagon.
House Republican leaders promised tough questions for Zelensky on how he plans to win Ukraine's counteroffensive against invading Russian forces. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy and other Republicans notably chose not to join in greeting the Ukrainian president before the cameras, leaving House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries to escort Zelensky into the Capitol.
House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul said Zelensky's message for a bipartisan group of House lawmakers Thursday was “that he's winning.”
Speaking to reporters, McCaul played down growing Republican dissent on continuing to support Ukraine with money and arms, saying: “The majority of the majority support this."
But McCaul said lawmakers needed confidence that there was a clear strategy for victory for Ukraine.
“War of attrition is not going to win this,” McCaul said. “That’s what Putin wants," he said, referring to Russian President Vladimir Putin. "He wants to break the will of the American people and the Europeans.”
It is Zelensky's second visit to Washington since the Ukraine crisis in February 2022 and comes as Biden's request to Congress for an additional $24 billion for Ukraine’s military and humanitarian needs is hanging in the balance. Back home, Russian launched its heaviest strikes in a month in the hours before Zelensky’s arrival at Congress, killing three, igniting fires and damaging energy infrastructure as Russian missiles and artillery pounded cities across Ukraine.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby called the Ukrainian president “our best messenger” in persuading US lawmakers to keep vital US money and weapons coming.
“It’s really important for members of Congress to be able to hear directly from the president about what he's facing in this counteroffensive," Kirby told reporters Wednesday, "and how he’s achieving his goals, and what he needs to continue to achieve those goals."
Biden has called on world leaders to stand strong with Ukraine, even as he faces domestic political divisions at home. A hard-right flank of Republicans, led by former President Donald Trump, Biden’s chief rival in the 2024 race for the White House, is increasingly opposed to sending more money overseas.
Zelensky faces challenges in Europe as well as cracks emerge in what had been a largely united Western alliance behind Ukraine.
Late Wednesday, Poland’s prime minister said his country is no longer sending arms to Ukraine, a comment that appeared aimed at pressuring Kyiv and put Poland’s status as a major source of military equipment in doubt as a trade dispute between the neighbouring states escalates.
Zelensky’s visit comes with US and world government leaders watching as Ukrainian forces struggle to take back territory that Russia gained over the past year. Their progress in the next month or so before the rains come and the ground turns to mud could be critical to rousing additional global support over the winter. Russian President Putin, who believes he can outlast allied backing for Kyiv, will be ready to capitalise if he sees Ukraine is running low on air defence or other weapons.
The political environment has shifted markedly since Zelensky addressed Congress last December on his first trip out of Ukraine since the war began. He was met with rapturous applause for his country’s bravery and surprisingly strong showing in the war.
His meeting with senators on Thursday took place behind closed doors in the Old Senate Chamber, a historic and intimate place of importance at the US Capitol, signifying the respect the Senate is showing the foreign leader.
Zelensky received a warmer welcome from both parties on his stop in the Senate. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer flanked him as he walked in. A few lawmakers of both parties wore clothes with blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
McCarthy, who faces more opposition within his Trump-aligned ranks to supporting Ukraine, arranged a separate meeting with Zelensky, with a smaller bipartisan group of lawmakers and committee chairmen.
“I will have questions for President Zelensky,” McCarthy told reporters before the visit.
The House speaker said he wanted more accountability for the money the US has already approved for Ukraine before moving ahead with more.
And, McCarthy said, he wants to know, "What is the plan for victory?”
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