On the 300th day of Russia’s assault on Ukraine, Ukraine’s president left his country for the first time since the war began. And in a historic, almost surreal address to a joint session of Congress on Wednesday night, Volodymyr Zelenskyy urged Americans to stay the course in their support for his country.
“Against all odds and doom-and-gloom scenarios,” he said, “Ukraine did not fold. Ukraine is alive and kicking.”
Zelenskyy is not the first leader of a country at war to address Congress. British Prime Minister Winston Churchill did it during World War II, as did leaders of Afghanistan and Iraq during the United States’ long wars in those countries. But this appearance was nonetheless unique. Just a day before his arrival in Washington, the president was in Bakhmut, a city on the front lines in eastern Ukraine that has seen daily Russian assaults for months. Even Kyiv itself, where Zelenskyy spends most of his time, has been under frequent Russian missile bombardment, leaving much of the city without power. Rarely has a foreign leader traveled directly to Washington from a literal war zone.
From touchdown to flight home, he spent only a few hours in Washington — a stopover that also included a meeting at the White House with President Joe Biden. The mere fact that Zelenskyy made the trip, from one of the world’s most dangerous battlefields to the U.S. Capitol, was a remarkable feat of logistics and security planning that were kept tightly under wraps until Tuesday.
“I am privileged to be here,” Zelenskyy said. And then he launched into a full-throated and strategic plea to American lawmakers to stay the course.
“Your well-being is a product of your national security, the result of your struggle for independence and your many victories,” he said. “We Ukrainians will also go through our war of independence and freedom with dignity and success.”
Zelenskyy has spoken to dozens of national legislatures since the war began — 38, at latest count — and he often includes messages meant to resonate with the local audience. His address to Congress was no exception. Zelenskyy referred to the Revolutionary War’s Battle of Saratoga, the Battle of the Bulge in World War II, and he quoted Franklin Roosevelt’s exhortation to “absolute victory.” And then, in a moment of flourish, he unfurled a Ukrainian flag that he had carried with him from Bakhmut. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) returned the favor and presented Zelenskyy with an American flag that had flown over the Capitol Wednesday.
“Next year will be a turning point,” Zelenskyy said, “the point where Ukrainian courage and American resolve will guarantee the future of our common freedom, the freedom of people who stand for their values.”
It was one of several lines that was met with loud applause.
Keeping an eye on Congress
Why would Zelenskyy go through all this trouble and risk? The support of the U.S., which has given more than half the total international aid to Ukraine, according to published figures, is one of Kyiv’s key assets in this war. In short, conditions in Congress are nearly as important to the Ukrainian war effort as conditions on the battlefield. Indeed, Zelenskyy’s speech came as Congress was debating an omnibus spending bill that includes $45 billion in additional funding for Ukraine. This is the fourth major aid package for Ukraine that Congress has put forward — the last three totaled around $68 billion — and the latest tranche weighs in at $7 billion more than the Biden administration sought.
To put these numbers in perspective: Russia’s projected defense budget for 2023 — the fifth largest in the world — is $84 billion.
It probably still won’t be enough. At Ukraine’s current rate of war spending — around $6.8 billion per month, according to the Center for Strategic and International Studies — the country will run through this aid package in the summer of 2023, at which point, if the war is still going, the White House will need to go back to Congress for more.
As if to stress the point, Zelenskyy told the Congress, “We have artillery, yes, thank you. Is it enough? Honestly, not really.”
White House officials stressed Tuesday that “this isn’t about sending a message to a particular political party,” but Zelenskyy’s visit came shortly before the swearing in of a new, Republican-controlled Congress. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) suggested before the midterm election that Congress will no longer provide a “blank check” to Ukraine, and other members are pushing for more scrutiny of how aid is disbursed. That doesn’t mean support for Ukraine will disappear overnight — there are still a lot of Russia hawks in the Republican caucus — but support for the war effort may no longer be the relatively uncontroversial issue it’s been for most of this year.
A December poll from the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that the number of Americans who say U.S. support for Ukraine should continue “as long as it takes,” even if American households have to pay more for food and gas, is now at 48 percent, down from 58 percent in June.
Biden used those same words Wednesday with Zelenskyy at his side. “The American people have been with you every step of the way, and we will stay with you,” Biden said. “We will stay with you for as long as it takes.”
Again, “as long as it takes” is the key phrase here. Ukrainian commanders have said they believe Russia is deliberately prolonging this conflict in order to exhaust Ukraine and its international backers. The degree to which the Ukraine effort is putting a strain on American stocks of ammunition and equipment is already causing concern among some American commanders, which was reportedly one of the reasons the Biden administration waited until this month to grant Ukraine’s long-standing request for Patriot air defense missiles.
For his part, Zelenskyy repeatedly referred to “members of both parties” and said that support should be “solid, bicameral and bipartisan.”
And as if to answer McCarthy’s “blank check” warning, the Ukrainian leader told the members of Congress that “your money is not charity.” U.S. aid, he said, “is an investment in global security and democracy that we will handle in the most responsible way.”
Meanwhile, a world away, Zelenskyy’s adversary, Russian President Vladimir Putin, gave a speech of his own Tuesday. Putin’s address was very different, a prerecorded video message to Russian troops in which he made a rare acknowledgment that the situation in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine is “extremely complicated.”
In his speech, Zelenskyy said simply, “Russia is poisoned by the Kremlin.”
Thanks to Lillian Barkley and Dave Tepps for copy editing this article.