In Washington, Zelensky courts Congress, Biden on military aid

22 September 2023 - 09:45
By Reuters
President Volodymyr Zelensky. File image
Image: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters President Volodymyr Zelensky. File image

US President Joe Biden assured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday strong US support for his war to repel Russian invaders will be maintained, despite opposition from some Republican lawmakers to sending billions more in aid.

Biden and Zelensky held a war council in the White House East Room as part of a blizzard of appearances the Ukraine leader made looking to bolster US support for a war that began in February 2022 and has no end in sight.

“Mr President, we're with you, we're staying with you,” Biden told Zelensky before reaching across the table and shaking his hand after two hours of talks.

Zelensky thanked Biden for a new $325m (R6.13bn) military aid package of weaponry and air defences, saying “it has exactly what our soldiers need now”.

He said he and Biden agreed on specific steps to expand the export of grain from Ukraine in the face of a Russian blockade and tensions with neighbour Poland. He did not detail the steps.

Biden's request for $24m (R453.2m) in more Ukraine funding to help pay for Ukraine's defence and humanitarian aid to the end of the year is bottled up in a budget fight pushed by Republican hardliners in the House of Representatives.

Asked how to overcome the opposition, Biden said the only way was approval by the US Congress.

“I’m counting on the good judgment of the US Congress. There’s no alternative,” he said.

Comments from Republican Senator Rand Paul, a frequent critic of foreign aid, were emblematic of the opposition. He told Fox Business News Ukraine is a “corrupt regime” and the war has no end in sight.

Biden said the first American Abrams tanks will be delivered to Ukraine next week.

“Just as we're committed to helping Ukraine defend itself now, we're also committed to helping them recover and rebuild in the future, including supporting reforms that will combat corruption,” Biden said.

Biden said Washington would also send Ukraine a second Raytheon-built Hawk air defence battery and related equipment. A US official said the equipment would arrive in Ukraine soon.

After seeking international support at the UN on Wednesday, Zelensky came to Washington on a blitz across town that included meetings military leaders at the Pentagon, a visit to the US Capitol and an address in the evening at the National Archives Museum.

Announcing the new $325m military aid package for Ukraine, Biden lauded the bravery of the Ukrainian people when he and Zelensky met earlier in the Oval Office.

“With our partners and allies, the American people are determined to [do] all we can to ensure the world stands with you,” Biden said in comments at the start of their meeting.

Zelensky said Ukraine greatly appreciates US assistance “to combat Russian terror” and said he would discuss Ukraine's defence needs with Biden, with a special emphasis on air defence.

“I'm in Washington to strengthen our ability to defend Ukrainian children, our families, our homes, freedom and democracy in the world,” he added.

While Biden and most congressional leaders still support aid to Ukraine, and Biden's Democrats control the Senate, Zelensky faced a tougher crowd than when he visited Washington nine months ago.

Dressed in military green to reflect his status as a wartime leader, Zelensky briefed the full US Senate in the Capitol's historic Old Senate Chamber, receiving several standing ovations, according to a post on the platform X by Senator Chris Murphy.

Zelensky told senators military aid was crucial to Ukraine's war effort, Majority leader Chuck Schumer said in the Senate chamber after the briefing, which took place behind closed doors.

“If we don't get the aid we will lose the war,” Schumer quoted Zelensky as saying.

Zelensky later described his meetings with lawmakers as frank and constructive.

He held discussions with US defense secretary Lloyd Austin and other senior Pentagon leaders. He visited the Pentagon's memorial of the September 11 2001 attacks where he and his wife each placed a bouquet of sunflowers, irises and other flowers.

The White House announced the US will host a conference this autumn for the US defence industry, Ukrainian business leaders and officials from both governments to explore joint ventures and co-production, as Washington seeks to bolster Ukraine's long-term defence capabilities.

In his speech at the National Archives, in front of a display case holding the US constitution, Zelensky thanked Americans for their support, saying “there is not a soul in Ukraine that does not feel gratitude to you, America”.

Zelensky and his wife handed out awards to doctors who treated Ukrainian soldiers and civilians and to people who raised funds for medical equipment, ambulances and other vital supplies.

As Ukraine's military counteroffensive grinds on and Congress stages a bitter debate over spending before a possible government shutdown, a growing chorus of Republicans have questioned the billions of dollars Washington has sent Kyiv for military, economic and humanitarian needs.

The US has sent $113bn (R2.13-trillion) in security and humanitarian aid to help Zelensky's government since Russia invaded in February 2022.