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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

In Washington visit, Zelenskyy tries to shore up critical support

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, center, is accompanied by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), left, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Thursday morning, Sept. 21, 2023.

By Erica L. Green and Katie Rogers

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine made his second wartime visit to Washington on Thursday, and he warned lawmakers that his country would fall to Russia if the United States curtailed the military and financial aid that helped Ukraine withstand a brutal onslaught but had ultimately not given the Ukrainians an upper hand.

Zelenskyy’s blunt warning comes as Ukraine struggles to break through Russian front lines. On Thursday, Russia launched a missile attack on cities across Ukraine, including Kyiv, the capital, hours after Zelenskyy denounced Russia’s “criminal and unprovoked aggression” against his country before the U.N. Security Council.

Zelenskyy was in Washington to make an appeal for more aid and to follow up on President Joe Biden’s request to Congress for a $24 billion package of military and humanitarian funding, bucking concerns from congressional Republicans who have promised not to “write a blank check” for the war.

“If we don’t get the aid, we will lose the war,” Zelenskyy said in a meeting on Capitol Hill with dozens of senators, as recounted by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., the majority leader. In a show of bipartisan comity, Zelenskyy, dressed in olive fatigues, was escorted by Schumer and Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.

“American support for Ukraine is not charity,” McConnell, the minority leader, said in a statement. “It’s in our own direct interests — not least because degrading Russia helps to deter China.”

Still, Washington has changed in the nine months since Zelenskyy was invited to deliver a joint address to Congress — complete with Vice President Kamala Harris and Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House at the time, brandishing a Ukrainian flag signed by soldiers on the front line. Republicans now control the House, and conservative lawmakers in both chambers have been vocal about the cost of the war, both in dollars and flagging U.S. support, as a government shutdown looms.

This time, Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters that Zelenskyy had already had his chance to deliver a congressional address. In a smaller closed-door meeting, Republican lawmakers asked Zelenskyy to address their concerns and provide them with his vision of a plan for victory. And Democrats asked him how they could convince their conservative colleagues that continuing to support the war was the right answer.

Zelenskyy’s visit, which included a stop at a United Nations summit this week, comes at a crucial moment in the war, with Ukraine’s fight against Russian invaders heading into the harsh winter months. In Washington, he seemed intent on emphasizing the toll of the war as well as personally appealing to lawmakers: After visiting Capitol Hill, he traveled to the Pentagon and stopped at a memorial to the 9/11 terrorist attacks, closing his eyes as if in prayer or meditation while a bugle played.

He was later set to meet Biden at the White House, where the president was hoping to get a “battlefield perspective” on the war from Zelenskyy, said John Kirby, a White House spokesperson. Biden has made support for Ukraine a centerpiece of his foreign policy, arguing that it is vital to U.S. national security. He has continued to provide aid using previously approved funds, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced this week that American M1 Abrams tanks would be arriving in Ukraine soon.

Ukraine has been lobbying for the United States to supply a powerful weapon called the Army Tactical Missile System, known as ATACMS (pronounced like “attack ’ems”), which Kirby said was not off the table.

ATACMS, which can strike targets 190 miles away with a warhead containing about 375 pounds of explosives, could help Ukraine regain Crimea, a part of the country Russia seized in 2014. But the United States has expressed fears about escalation.

“We’re trying to avoid World War III,” Biden has said.

Even so, polls have shown a dip in support among Americans, partly because of concerns about the economy and other issues at home. McCarthy, whose position is imperiled by a far-right faction of his party that opposes Ukraine aid, had a private meeting with Zelenskyy, and both men were cordial. But he has also publicly questioned supporting the war.

“Where is the accountability on the money we already spent?” McCarthy asked reporters this week. “What is the plan for victory? I think that’s what the American public wants to know.”

Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Kirby defended the weaponry the United States had provided to Ukraine.

“We’ve evolved the capabilities as the war has evolved, as the needs evolve, and that has had a significant impact on the Ukrainians’ ability to defend themselves and to advance in this counteroffensive,” he said.

“The progress that they are making, though not as far or as fast as they themselves have said they’d like to go, is not by accident,” Kirby said. “It’s absolutely due in great measure to their bravery and skill on the battlefield. But it is also due, in no small way, to the support that the United States has provided them.”

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