Zelensky arrives to grim Capitol Hill as Biden’s aid package for Ukraine risks collapse

Zelensky's visit comes as Ukraine aid

Zelensky US visit Walking with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrives at the U.S. Capitol to meet with Congressional leadership in Washington | AFP

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrived Tuesday on Capitol Hill to a darker mood than when he swooped in last winter for a hero's welcome, as the Russian invasion is grinding into a third year and US funding hangs in the balance.

Zelenskyy's visit to Washington comes as 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. Republicans are insisting on strict US-Mexico border security changes that Democrats decry as draconian in exchange for the overseas aid.

It is maddening, said Senator Chris Coons, a close ally of Biden. A very bad message to the world, to the Ukrainian people.

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 has taken 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.

But the prospects for a deal on Ukraine funding turned grim at the Capitol on the eve of Zelenskyy's arrival.

He made no comments as he entered a private meeting with senators. He was next scheduled to visit new House Speaker Mike Johnson, then talk with Biden at the White House as the once robust bipartisan support for Ukraine was slipping further out of reach.

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.

It is more critical now than ever that we maintain our support for Ukraine so they can continue to hold the line and regain their territory, said White House National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson. She added that Russian President Vladimir Putin "is clearly watching what happens in Congress and we need Congress to act this month to support Ukraine in its time of need.

Republicans in Congress, fueled by Johnson's far-right flank in the House, have taken on an increasingly isolationist stance in US foreign policy, demanding changes to American border and immigration policies in exchange for any funds to battle Putin's war in Ukraine.

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, Senator 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. We've got to be able to deal with all these things together.

Zelenskyy, who visited Washington just months ago in September when the aid package was first being considered, is making his third trip to the Capitol since the war broke out in February 2022.

His surprise arrival days before Christmas last December was Zelenskyy's first wartime trip out of Ukraine and he received thunderous applause in Congress. Lawmakers sported the blue-and-yellow colors 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.

New Speaker Johnson, on the job since October when Republicans ousted their previous leader Kevin McCarthy, has spoken publicly in favour of aiding Ukraine, as has Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell. But it's not certain they 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 has an opportunity to impress on Johnson in their private talk the moral clarity and why is Ukraine important.

He said Zelenskyy could shake up the stalemate in Congress by reminding Johnson and the senators, If we abandon our NATO allies and Ukraine, like we did in Afghanistan, we're just going to invite more aggression and embolden and empower our adversaries.

Zelenskyy kicked off the quick visit to Washington on Monday, warning in a speech at a defense university that Russia may be fighting in Ukraine but its real target is freedom in America and around the world.

If there's anyone inspired by unresolved issues on Capitol Hill, it's just Putin and his sick clique, Zelenskyy told an audience of military leaders and students at the National Defense University on Monday.

He noted that on this day 82 years ago President Franklin D Roosevelt signed the declaration of war against Germany. Now, he said, though the US has no troops on the ground in Ukraine, it is supplying critically needed weapons and equipment.

Of the new $110 billion national security package, $61.4 billion would go toward Ukraine with about half, some $30 billion, going to the Defence 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.

The US has already provided Ukraine $111 billion for its fight against Russia's 2022 invasion.

The White House has been more engaged with Congress, with Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas in some discussions, according to a person familiar with the talks and granted anonymity to discuss them. But Republicans said the Democrats did not respond to their latest offer.

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. 

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