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Zelenskyy presses U.S. lawmakers for aid as opposition persists

US President Joe Biden speaks (left) shakes hands with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky during an event to announce a Joint Declaration of Support for Ukraine during the NATO summit, in Vilnius on July 12, 2023.    (Ludovic Marin/AFP/Getty Images North America/TNS)
Jenny Leonard, Steven T. Dennis and Kailey Leinz, Bloomberg News

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pressed U.S. lawmakers privately on Thursday for sustained support to counter Russia’s war machine in a conflict that allies now fear will drag on for years, just as hardline Republicans are threatening to halt additional aid.

Zelenskyy plans to meet Thursday with military leaders at the Pentagon and with President Joe Biden at the White House. But the success of his trip hinges on his visit to Capitol Hill and his ability to persuade ultra-conservatives who represent a small but crucial bloc of the Republican majority in the U.S. House.

Topping Zelenskyy’s requests during the meetings were F-16 fighter jets, as well as the longer-range ATACMS missiles that Kyiv has long sought, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Michael McCaul said after the meeting, which lasted less than an hour.

“A war of attrition is not going to win this. That’s what Putin wants, is to break the will of the American people,” said McCaul, who is among the Republicans who support ongoing aid. “We can’t afford a war of attrition. We need a plan for victory, and we need to do it soon.”

Continued backing from the U.S. and its allies is vital for Zelenskyy as his forces struggle to advance against Russian troops still occupying about 17% of his territory, fueling doubts about his ability to oust them completely.

Cracks have begun to emerge in the support for Kyiv, with Poland, a key ally, this week threatening to suspend arms deliveries in a dispute over grain shipments. At the same time, Zelenskyy’s efforts to win over major countries of the developing world at the United Nations General Assembly this week have yielded few visible results.

In Washington, the reception for Zelenskyy was cooler than during his last visit in December, when he spoke to a joint session of Congress. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who has clamored for accountability of Ukraine aid the U.S. has already committed, told reporters that he rejected Zelenskyy’s request for a similar speech this time because lawmakers didn’t have time in a “busy week.”

After the meeting Thursday, McCarthy said Zelenskyy “answered a lot my questions.” Reiterating his support for Ukraine in the war, McCarthy said he’s “more than willing to look at” the requested aid package but he wants Biden to address the U.S. border with Mexico before funding Ukraine.

Freezing new aid has become a ransom demand in the broader clash over government spending and a conservative Republicans’ efforts to challenge the embattled speaker.

Far-right representatives have said the funding antagonizes Russian President Vladimir Putin, could be better spent domestically, or should instead be devoted to bolstering Taiwan’s defenses.

The request also comes as Ukraine’s partners increasingly see a prolonged battle. A senior official from one European Group of Seven country said the war may last as long as six or seven more years — an assessment shared by other allies and largely based on Ukraine’s slow progress in its counteroffensive.

White House officials have expressed confidence bipartisan support for more aid still exists, especially among the leadership in both parties, but the funding question is now tied up in fighting within the GOP.

McCarthy told reporters Wednesday that Ukraine would be separate from any stopgap funding bill that would keep the government open for the next few weeks as lawmakers debate a broader package. The speaker has supported aid but said that he would ask Zelenskyy “What is the strategy to win?” and “are the resources going in the right place?”

While most Republicans have supported Ukraine aid, a band of about 70 have opposed it, and McCarthy can lose no more than four Republicans to pass any bill without Democratic votes.

His caucus includes members like Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, who has said she won’t back any legislation aiding Ukraine, calling it “a red line.”

Support among Republican senators is greater than in the House. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell told reporters he was looking forward to hearing from Zelenskyy and has reiterated the U.S. should continue aid.

There are outliers among the Senate GOP too, including Rand Paul of Kentucky, who vowed to slow-walk any aid to Ukraine, and Josh Hawley of Missouri, who told reporters after leaving an administration briefing on Ukraine Wednesday evening that the U.S. had gotten essentially nothing out of its investment so far, with no end in sight for spending requests.

The issue has also become a topic in the Republican presidential primary where candidates from former President Donald Trump to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy have questioned the U.S. commitment to Ukraine.

More hawkish Republicans, at the same time, are pressuring the administration to accelerate weapons deliveries.

—With assistance from Erik Wasson and Laura Litvan.