It is now slowly becoming official — that after an in-person appearance at the United Nations Assembly session to lobby world leaders for more support for Ukraine against Russian aggression, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky will be on his way to Washington DC to see US President Joe Biden and key Congressional Republicans and Democrats with the Oval Office meeting perhaps on September 21.
At a recent meeting with Zelensky in Kyiv, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken assured the Ukrainian leader that Washington is “determined to continue to walk side-by-side” with Ukraine.
There are at least three aspects to a changed Washington that Zelensky must be aware of.
First, the US is not fully sold on the Ukrainian counter-offensive claims of the last several weeks with apprehension on the extent of the recapture of Zelensky’s forces. Also Moscow predictably has not taken kindly to a US decision to supply cluster munitions that have been banned by many countries; and more recently on providing armour piercing depleted uranium anti-tank rounds for M1 Abrams tanks. Russia has called this a “criminal act”.
The US decision and some in Europe to provide new weaponry, including F16 jets, has not gone unnoticed in the Kremlin. Besides there s a feeling that all these will only prolong the war instead of finding ways to the start of reasonable negotiations.
With Russia nowhere near losing the war or even showing signs of exhaustion, the perception is one of Putin playing it out for as long as possible, pinning his hopes on the West eventually losing the war of nerves.
Second, it is the environment on Capitol Hill that must worry Zelensky. The Ukrainian leader is visiting at a time when some US law makers are clearly exhibiting signs of exasperation in issuing “blank cheques”, especially when at loggerheads on spending money for domestic programmes. It is just not hardline Trump Republicans getting uneasy over the Ukraine spending, there are slow murmurs within the Democratic Party as well.
Between the start of the war in February 2022 and the end of May 2023, the Biden administration has provided a total of $76.8 billion in assistance to Ukraine with military aid alone accounting for $46.6 billion, followed by financial help at $26.4 billion, and humanitarian at $3.9 billion.
Now Congress is debating an additional $24 billion in military and humanitarian assistance. And some law makers like House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, are looking at the prospect of separating Ukraine assistance from the federal package to avert a shutdown on September 30.
Third, Zelensky is coming to Washington at a time when the impeachment of President Biden is perking up with law makers hanging on the coattails of the former President determined to drag the Democratic President through vexing process that Democrats made President Trump endure, not once but twice.
That the charges of corruption against President Biden and that of his family — principally his son, Hunter Biden — are said to be on weak grounds does not seem to matter as it apparently has the blessings of Trump himself. And not many hardline conservatives have forgotten the 2019 Trump impeachment, the Ukraine connection and abuse of power — security assistance of $400 million and a potential White House visit for newly elected Zelensky were both pegged to investigations of the Bidens.
During his December 2022 visit the Ukrainian leader, in his impassioned address to Congress, stressed that assistance to his country should not be seen as “charity” but as “investment” in security and democracy. September 2023 is a different story.
The writer is a senior journalist who has reported from Washington DC on North America and UN