“We’re in negotiations to get funding we need. Not making promises, but hopeful we can get there — I think we can,” Biden said at a White House press conference with Zelenskyy.
Minutes earlier, Biden said the U.S. would continue to supply Ukraine with air defenses, artillery and other weapons “as long as we can” — a far cry from the yearslong refrain that Washington would stand side by side with Kyiv for “as long as it takes.”
It’s another sign that Biden isn’t free to operate on the world stage as he pleases. Polarized politics at home hamstrung his ability to do what he wants — in this case, assure Zelenskyy that the U.S. will always be there to bolster Ukraine’s defenses. It’s a far different mood in December than it was in September during Zelenskyy’s last visit, when Biden remained hopeful that Washington’s woes wouldn’t affect how the U.S. handled the bruising war.
A majority of Republicans in the House and Senate would vote along with Democrats to send more weapons to Ukraine. But first they want Biden to agree to a tougher border policy, leading to painstaking negotiations that are unlikely to conclude by year’s end. That leaves Zelenskyy, who traveled to Washington this week to convince lawmakers their approval was needed, empty-handed as he travels home to his war-torn country.
Biden chastised Republicans for putting the U.S. in the position of not being able to pump Ukraine full of more weapons, citing remarks by Russian commentators thanking Republicans for holding up passage of the legislation. “If you’re being celebrated by Russian propagandists, it might be time to rethink what you’re doing,” he said.
Biden did announce another military assistance package of $200 million for Ukraine, pulling from funds previously authorized by Congress. It shows Biden plans to continue to pump the Eastern European nation full of American weapons. But the question after Zelenskyy’s two-day visit to Washington was: Would that be among the last tranches for a while?
While legislation to fund more assistance for Ukraine likely has the votes to sail through Congress, Zelenskyy’s presence will do little to change the domestic political bout. Border discussions — an issue the Ukrainian leader studiously avoided — are the real sticking point, not what lawmakers think of Biden’s Ukraine policy, including those who argue Ukraine should cede territory to Russia as part of a peace deal.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a staunch Ukraine supporter, said Tuesday that border negotiations wouldn’t be completed by the year’s end, meaning Zelenskyy will leave Washington no closer to guaranteed future support, despite his salesmanship around town.
Some well-timed intelligence releases by the Biden administration helped make Zelenskyy’s case. A newly declassified U.S. intelligence memo, detailed to POLITICO by a person familiar with its contents, reveals Russia has lost 315,000 troops out of its pre-war Army of 360,000 — or 87 percent — requiring the Kremlin to mobilize the public and recruit furiously to replace the killed and wounded. Russia has also lost 2,200 of the 3,500 tanks it had before 2002, requiring the military to take Soviet-era equipment, like the T-62 tank, out of storage.
Zelenskyy boasted of how Ukrainian forces pushed Russian warships out of its territorial waters, making it easier to trade grain and steel to the war. He also spoke of how Ukraine reclaimed 50 percent of the land Russia seized in the first days of invasion which began in February 2022.
In a Monday address at National Defense University, Zelenskyy claimed that ending support for Kyiv would allow Russian President Vladimir Putin to win the war he started. Later that evening, he told a group of D.C.-based analysts that he only had a “handful” of air-defense systems around Kyiv to protect the capital city. The Ukrainian leader said he’d like to be given “a dozen” more to defend major population centers like Kherson and Odessa.
In the House, however, Republican support for aiding Ukraine has reached its nadir, with many conservatives vowing not to support any additional money for the nation’s military.
In a series of meetings on Capitol Hill earlier Tuesday, Zelenskyy emphasized the urgent need for more aid, laying out the stakes of the conflict and vowing accountability for how U.S. funds would be spent. After his meeting with Zelenskyy, House Speaker Mike Johnson reiterated his stance that any Ukraine aid must be paired with robust border security funding.
Zelenskyy avoided weighing in on the Senate’s border talks, and lawmakers skeptical of quickly delivering funding emerged from the meetings indicating Zelenskyy’s appeal had done little to change their minds.
Zelenskyy, however, did raise the need for the U.S. to supply longer range version of the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, during his meeting with Johnson, according to a person familiar with the conversation. The U.S. has supplied ATACMS with a shorter range, and top national security Republicans have in recent weeks urged Biden to send a longer-range variant so Ukrainian forces can strike Russian targets at a greater distance.
The reception at the White House, by contrast, was far warmer. Biden praised Ukraine for surviving against Russia’s onslaught despite having a smaller force reliant on Western weaponry. Zelenskyy repeatedly thanked Biden for supporting his country and rallying the West to Kyiv’s cause.
“Together, Ukraine and America can strengthen democracy’s arsenal,” Zelenskyy said from the podium, adding that both countries could further isolate Putin. “No matter what Putin tries, he doesn’t win any victories.”
Yet his tough talk nevertheless came with few new assurances for Zelenskyy despite his repeated emphasis that Ukraine’s fate — and the Western world’s ability to avoid a larger war with Russia — hinges on America’s willingness to stand behind it.
National security experts inside and outside the administration have expressed fears that abandoning Ukraine would not only empower Putin but damage the U.S.’s standing with other crucial allies around the globe, such as Taiwan, whose security similarly depends in part on the perception that the U.S. is in its corner.
The consequences in Ukraine of lawmakers leaving for the year without approving more aid would be immediate, they worry, spurring a newly confident Russia to step up its bombardment of Ukrainian cities with the aim of stressing its air defenses and depleting stockpiles.
That could turn the tide of the war, allowing Russia to retake territory while also putting greater pressure on Ukraine economically. There is no fallback plan in the meantime for filling the void left by the U.S., officials have stressed. Europe is incapable of fully picking up the slack when it comes to providing the munitions Ukraine needs. And even if the Pentagon could find some existing money to shift around, restrictions on how those funds can be used means it could take months to purchase and then send equipment to Kyiv.
“To just put it bluntly, a lot of Ukrainians are going to die if this money isn’t passed,” said Max Bergmann, a former State Department official now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “When the money runs out, the money runs out.”
Connor O’Brien contributed to this report.