President Joe Biden’s request for an additional $110 billion US aid package for Ukraine, Israel and other national security needs is at serious risk of collapse in Congress
His country’s future at stake, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy used inspirational words, resolve and a nod to Christmas in appealing Tuesday to leaders in Congress for US aid for his fighters in the war with Russia.
But as he arrived next at the White House, additional American support was in grave doubt.
Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington came at a grim time, much changed from the hero’s welcome he received last year. President Joe Biden’s request for an additional $110 billion US aid package for Ukraine, Israel and other national security needs is at serious risk of collapse in Congress as Republicans are insisting on linking it to strict US-Mexico border security changes that Democrats decry.
“The fight we’re in is a fight for freedom,” Zelenskyy repeatedly said in the meetings, according to lawmakers.
Flanked by Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Zelenskyy entered a private meeting with senators with a public bipartisan show of support and to some applause. But more than an hour later few senators’ minds appeared changed.
Schumer called it a “very powerful” meeting but gave no update on stalled negotiations.
Next, Zelenskyy visited the House leaders, including privately with new Speaker Mike Johnson, whose hard-right Republicans have been the most resistant to any deal. Johnson insisted afterwards: “We do want to do the right thing here.”
The White House said the time was right for Zelenskyy’s trip to Washington as Biden pushes lawmakers to approve the aid package before the year-end holidays. A top spokesman said the US can’t let Ukraine aid lapse, especially as the Israel-Hamas war takes attention, and that the president was willing to make compromises with Republicans.
“This additional funding will absolutely help Ukraine claw back even more of their territory and kick the Russians right out of Ukraine,” said the White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby on NBC.
However, prospects for a congressional deal on Ukraine funding seemed all but out of reach.
Zelenskyy impressed on the senators that Ukraine could win the war against Russia, telling them he was drafting men in their 30s and 40s in a show of strength for the battle. In his trademark olive drab, he stood before a portrait of George Washington, history hanging behind him.
To the House Democrats, he showcased his country’s embrace of the West by pointing to the Christmas season, telling them it was the first year Ukraine would celebrate on Dec. 25 rather than the day Russians mark the holiday.
McConnell said afterwards Zelenskyy was “inspirational and determined.”
But Republican senators exited the meeting unmoved from their position. Senator Markwayne Mullin of Oklahoma said the emergency funding wouldn’t gain GOP support unless it includes “real, meaningful border reform.”
Biden has expressed a willingness to engage with the Republicans as migrant crossings have hit record highs along the US-Mexico border, but Democrats in his own party oppose proposals for expedited deportations and strict asylum standards as a return to Trump-era hostility towards migrants.
With talks at a standstill, one chief Republican negotiator, Sen. James Lankford of Oklahoma, said there was nothing Zelenskyy could say during his visit with the senators to sway the outcome.
“Hey, pay attention to us, but not your own country? No,” Lankford told reporters.
Ahead of Zelenskyy’s high-stakes meetings, the White House late Monday pointed to newly declassified intelligence that shows Ukraine has inflicted heavy losses on Russia in recent fighting along the Avdiivka-Novopavlivka axis — including 13,000 casualties and over 220 combat vehicle losses. The Ukrainian holdout in the country’s partly-occupied east has been the centre of some of the fiercest fighting in recent weeks.
US intelligence officials have determined that the Russians think if they can achieve a military deadlock through the winter it will drain Western support for Ukraine and ultimately give Russia the advantage, despite the fact that Russians have sustained heavy losses and have been slowed by persistent shortages of trained personnel, munitions and equipment.
A US intelligence analysis recently declassified and sent to Congress shows the extent to which Ukraine has inflicted damages to Russia’s military.
Russia has lost 87% of the military personnel it had before the Ukraine war, including contracted and other ground forces, naval infantry and airborne troops, according to a person familiar with the analysis and granted anonymity to discuss it.
Additionally, of the 3,500 Russian tanks before the invasion, some 2,200 have been lost on the battlefield, the person said.
The result is forcing Russia to rely on Soviet-era weaponry and has set back efforts to modernize its ground forces, the person said the analysis shows.
White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson said that Russian President Vladimir Putin “is clearly watching what happens in Congress — and we need Congress to act this month to support Ukraine.”
It’s Zelenskyy’s third visit to Washington since the war broke out in February 2022, including a quick trip just a few months ago as aid was being considered. But his surprise arrival days before Christmas last December drew thunderous applause in Congress, his daring first wartime trip out of Ukraine.
At the time, lawmakers sported the blue-and-yellow colours of Ukraine, and Zelenskyy delivered a speech that drew on the parallels to World War II as he thanked Americans for their support.
But 2023 brought a new power centre of hard-right Republicans, many aligned with Donald Trump, the former president who is now the GOP front-runner in the 2024 race for the White House.
It’s not at all clear new Speaker Johnson, on the job since October when Republicans ousted their previous leader Kevin McCarthy, with McConnell can steer an aid package through the House’s right flank.
Republican Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said Zelenskyy can shake up the stalemate by showing the stakes of potential Russian expansion toward NATO, and making his case on “moral clarity and why is Ukraine important.”
Zelenskyy kicked off the quick visit to Washington on Monday, warning in a speech at a defence university that Russia may be fighting in Ukraine but its “real target is freedom” in America and around the world.
Of the new $110 billion national security package, $61.4 billion would go toward Ukraine — with about half to the Defense Department to replenish weaponry it is supplying, and the other half for humanitarian assistance and to help the Ukrainian government function with emergency responders, public works and other operations.
The package includes another nearly $14 billion for Israel as it fights Hamas and $14 billion for US border security. Additional funds would go for national security needs in the Asia-Pacific region.
As Biden and Zelenskyy met, the US was preparing to announce another, relatively modest, million-dollar military aid package, according to US officials.
The roughly $200 million in weapons and equipment will be taken from Pentagon stocks and include additional ammunition for the High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), high-speed anti-radiation missiles, anti-armour systems, artillery rounds, missiles, demolition munitions, 4 million rounds of small arms ammunition, generators and other equipment and spare parts, one official said.
Including that latest package, the US now has about $4.4 billion remaining in weapons it can provide from department stockpiles.
The US has already provided Ukraine $111 billion for its fight against Russia’s 2022 invasion.
Border security talks have focused on making it more difficult for migrants to claim asylum and releasing fewer of them temporarily into the US while they await proceedings to determine if they can remain permanently.
Republicans have also proposed allowing the president to shut parts of the border when crossings reach high numbers, as they have for the past two years. One White House idea would expand the ability to conduct expedited deportations, drawing alarm from immigrant advocates.
As border talks drag, Biden’s budget director said last week that the US will run out of funding to send weapons and assistance to Ukraine by the end of the year.