Ukraine’s Zelenskyy arrives in the US. What’s on the agenda?

The Ukrainian president is trying to help break a US domestic political deadlock that would deprive his country of war funding.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy poses for a photo after his interview with The Associated Press in Kharkiv, Ukraine.
In a speech, Zelenskyy warned that Russia may be fighting in Ukraine but its 'real target is freedom' in America and around the world [File: Efrem Lukatsky/AP]

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has arrived in the US as part of his efforts to convince US politicians to not block military aid to the war-torn country.

Who will Zelenskyy meet on his visit to the US?

Zelenskyy is expected to meet US President Joe Biden, a staunch supporter of Ukraine in its war with Russia.

“[Russian president Vladimir Putin] thought he could break you … he was wrong. He continues to be wrong. Ukraine is unbroken, unbowed and unconquered, proving that nothing can dim the flame of liberty that burns in the heart of free people,” Biden said in late last September when Zelenskyy had again visited the White House.

Zelenskyy’s key meeting in Washington was likely to be scheduled with Republican and Democratic senators. The Republican Party has so far refused to even schedule a vote on President Biden’s request for $50bn in military aid for Ukraine next year and to replace US weapons drawn down for Ukraine this year.

Senate Republicans last week blocked Biden’s $111bn bill, which includes military aid to Israel and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, from advancing to debate and a vote. They said the bill did not contain provisions to tighten border security with Mexico and restrict asylum and parole rights for refugees.

JD Vance, the Ohio Republican senator, said he was “offended” by Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington this week, and it was “not the role of the United States here to hand out money to every beggar who comes into our country”.

Asked whether he had any indications for a breakthrough in September, Biden had said, “I’m counting on the good judgment of the US Congress. There’s no alternative.”

Biden has urged Congress to vote for Ukraine because it is both in the US interest and consistent with US values.

“The entire world has a stake in making sure that no nation, no aggressor, has the power to take a neighbour’s territory by force,” he said in his meeting with Zelenskyy. “The American people will never waver in our commitment to those values.”

Is Ukraine losing support?

Ukraine has witnessed an erosion in support on both sides of the Atlantic after a carefully prepared counteroffensive this year failed to achieve its strategic objective of driving a wedge into the middle of the Russian front. Some politicians have called for Ukraine to negotiate with Russia, something Zelenskyy presently refuses to do.

On Monday, Zelenskyy spoke with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban in Buenos Aires, during the inauguration of Argentina’s President Javier Milei.

Hungary has emerged as the European Union member most opposed to inviting Ukraine to start membership talks with the EU in this week’s summit or promising Ukraine $21.4bn (20 billion euros) in military aid next year. Zelenskyy has been coordinating strategies with the European Commission to break that impasse.

“We are working to get an unconditional decision to start negotiations,” said Zelenskyy in a November 13 video address. “It is fundamental for Ukraine to implement all the recommendations of the European Commission.”

But the US military aid is key, because the US has donated more than three times what Europe has donated in military aid ($111bn so far, versus Europe’s $29bn), and it also has the largest stockpiles of deliverable weapons in the West’s arsenal.

That, says a former Republican congressional candidate, is precisely why the US needs to step back.

“Republicans are reflecting the sentiment of many Americans who believe Ukraine’s fight is just, but believe that an additional $61.2bn in aid is excessive given that the US has contributed more to the effort than all other nations combined, while domestic concerns have been ignored,” Demetries Andrew Grimes, who stood for Florida’s 15th House district in 2022, told Al Jazeera.

Grimes, who has also supported ending birthright citizenship, whereby people born in the US have the right to US citizenship even if their parents were not legal migrants, says the situation is critical.

“6.5 million unvetted and undocumented migrants have entered the US since Biden took office,” he said, adding that a record number of immigrant arrivals on the southern border will lead to “another 5 million illegal” migrants entering the US within the next year.

Biden said Ukraine was to receive its first M1-Abrams tanks next week, along with Hawkeye missiles, launchers and interceptors to protect its airspace.

Apart from President Biden and the full Senate, Zelenskyy was due to meet with US House Speaker Mike Johnson.

What challenges is Ukraine currently facing in terms of funding and the war?

The Pentagon has started rationing its aid to Ukraine and has warned it could be stopped altogether by the end of the year.

On December 4, the White House Office of Budget and Management wrote to Congress, warning that “without congressional action, by the end of the year we will run out of resources to procure more weapons and equipment for Ukraine and to provide equipment from U.S. military stocks”.

The result would be to “kneecap” Ukraine’s armed forces just as Russia is pushing to regain the initiative on the battlefield, wrote Shalanda D Young, who heads the Office.

“If Ukraine’s economy collapses, they will not be able to keep fighting, full stop,” she said. “Putin understands this well, which is why Russia has made destroying Ukraine’s economy central to its strategy – which you can see in its attacks against Ukraine’s grain exports and energy infrastructure.”

Some US commentators believe the Republican stance represents Putin’s best hope of hobbling Ukraine’s war effort – especially once the US presidential election gets under way next year.

“What’s going to happen to the American election?… Trump and what the Republicans represent does not help Ukraine, and could potentially make things easier for Russia,” retired Colonel Seth Krummrich, now vice-president of Global Guardian, a security consultant, told Al Jazeera.

The White House has told congressional Republicans that domestic politics should not come in the way of US support for Ukraine in its fight against Russia.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has already put his own military budget in place. On November 27, he signed a 70 percent increase of defence and security spending next year, to a post-Cold War record $157.5bn – some 39 percent of the entire Russian budget.

“Zelensky is likely to depart Washington empty-handed, but with a commitment of assistance through authorized US weapons transfers from allies, backed by a US pledge to replenish allies for their contributions,” said Grimes.

On Monday afternoon, Zelenskyy received a boost from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), which said it would disburse another $900m under its Ukraine programme. The fund has granted $4.5bn under the $15.6bn programme so far this year.

Source: Al Jazeera