Volodymyr Zelensky pleaded with US lawmakers to approve $61 billion in aid vital to his war effort but left Washington with no clear commitment that his most important ally will keep up support as his fight against Russia’s invasion drags toward a third year.
The Ukrainian president appeared resolute as he spoke alongside Joe Biden, who vowed that the US would come through. But those pledges rang hollow as his proposal for financial support next year remained stalled in Congress for the fourth straight month amid Republican demands the White House compromise on the thorny issue of US border security as part of any deal.
Zelensky, who basked in a standing ovation on his first visit to Capitol Hill a year ago, faced a chillier welcome at closed-door meetings with lawmakers on Tuesday. Last December, he told a jubilant joint session of Congress that “Ukraine is alive and kicking.” This time, he told lawmakers his country will be drafting men over 45 years old and might have to resort to guerrilla warfare as aid from the US and its European allies grows more scarce.
“The president of Ukraine should not have to come back to beg for assistance and support,” said Senator Chris Coons of Delaware, one of Biden’s closest allies.
While supporters said they were still hopeful a compromise on the border issue may be reached after the holiday break to release the aid for next year, once-broad political support is fracturing both in the US and Europe.
After Ukraine’s early successes in pushing back Russian troops, the second year of war has brought little change in the front lines. Kyiv’s counteroffensive, backed by billions in western weapons and training, has made limited progress in the face of Russia’s deep defensive lines, raising questions about Zelensky’s relentless pledges to fight to victory.
“What the Biden administration seems to be asking for is billions of additional dollars with no appropriate oversight, no clear strategy to win and none of the answers that I think the American people are owed,” Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson said after a personal appeal from Zelensky. That’s from a lawmaker who said he supports more aid, unlike some of his more hardline colleagues.
Less than a year before the American presidential election, polls show voter unhappiness with the cost of supporting Ukraine growing, particularly among Republicans. Donald Trump, the frontrunner for the party’s nomination, has made clear he wants a deal with Russian President Vladimir Putin, not a fight.
Israel’s war in Gaza has also sapped enthusiasm for continued support for Ukraine.
“Practically impossible” was how Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, one of Ukraine’s staunchest Republican allies, described the chances of approval of the assistance before the end of the year.
“It’s stunning that we’ve gotten to this point,” Biden said.
In Europe, next year’s 50 billion euros ($54 billion) in assistance has been hung up amid opposition from Hungary’s pro-Moscow government. Leaders are slated to meet on the issue this week but there’s no certainty of a deal. Budapest indicated on Tuesday that it might be willing to compromise but there’s no certainty of a deal as European Union leaders prepare to meet.
“Zelensky’s mood and what’s going on this week is reflective that there’s not a lot of money left in the pot for support to Ukraine,” said Dara Massicot, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. “Because Ukraine is so reliant on Western aid at this point, the end of that aid is going to produce very near-term negative consequences for the battlefield.”
‘We Must Prove Him Wrong’
Biden said he had approved another $200 million in assistance Tuesday but warned that “without supplemental funding, we’re rapidly coming to the end of our ability to help Ukraine.”
The Pentagon has as much as $4.6 billion in additional authority it can use to send weapons from its stockpiles but only $1 billion to replace them, according to lawmakers and analysts, and that’s not enough to sustain the war effort for long. To date, the US has spent $111 billion supporting Kyiv in the fight.
“Putin is banking on the United States failing to deliver for Ukraine,” Biden said after his meeting with Zelensky. “We must, we must, we must prove him wrong.”
Zelensky touted Ukraine’s successes in attacking Russia’s forces in the Black Sea and renewed his appeals for fighter aircraft to help in the air.
Asked as he stood with Biden about the results of his trip, Zelensky tried to be upbeat.
“I got the signals. They were more than positive,” he said. “But we know that we have to separate words and particular results. Therefore we will count on particular results.”