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In Munich, Zelensky urges U.S., allies not to abandon Ukraine

BERLIN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 16: Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelenskyy speaks at the joint press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz at the Chancellery on February 16, 2024 in Berlin, Germany. Zelenskyy is in Germany to attend the Munich Security Conference. Scholz has been an outspoken supporter of military and financial aid to Ukraine, particularly as he seeks to rally other European nations to commit more in the face of what will very possibly be dwindling American support for Ukraine. Germany is the second largest donor of assistance to Ukraine after the USA. (Photo by Michele Tantussi/Getty Images)  (Michele Tantussi)
By Emily Rauhala, Michael Birnbaum, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Souad Mekhennet Washington Post

MUNICH - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleaded on Saturday for the United States and other international supporters to stick with Ukraine, warning a gathering of political leaders and security and defense officials that his country, if left alone, will be destroyed by Russia.

Zelenskyy, in a speech at the annual Munich Security Conference, seemed to speak directly to members of Congress who are blocking critical aid as he highlighted short-term deficits on the battlefield as well as the longer-term threat posed by Russia’s aggression to the rules-based international order.

His remarks came as Ukraine withdrew from the strategic eastern city of Avdiivka, sealing Russia’s most significant territorial victory since capturing Bakhmut last spring, and as opposition leader Alexei Navalny’s death put renewed focus on President Vladimir Putin’s brutal repression of dissent.

Adding to the unease at the annual Munich conference, former president Donald Trump a week ago suggested he would encourage Russia to attack NATO countries if they do not spend enough on defense, deepening questions about American reliability in the years ahead.

In Munich, top U.S. officials, including Vice President Harris and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, have tried to reassure allies. But since they have little concrete to offer apart from sunny words, they have made little headway with alarmed and gloomy Europeans. Many European policymakers here are expecting Trump to win in November, given President Biden’s low poll numbers, and they are starting to plan accordingly.

Questions about the deadlock in Washington over aid to Ukraine - and about U.S. global leadership more broadly - have dominated the annual conclave.

Zelenskyy last visited the conference two years ago, just days before Russia’s invasion. At the time, a war seemed inevitable, with thousands of Russian troops massed at the border, although Zelenskyy at the time said he did not expect an attack. Since then, Ukrainian leaders have held on against tremendous odds - although front-line troops warn that they are quickly running out of manpower and ammunition.

With the House just having gone on a two-week recess despite not having approved fresh aid for Ukraine, Zelenskyy noted dryly that unlike politicians in the West, Putin is moving quickly. “Please, everyone, remember that dictators do not go on vacation,” he said.

Zelenskyy tried to make clear the stakes without directly calling out U.S. officials. When asked by CNN’s Christiane Amanpour what he would say to the Republicans blocking Ukraine aid, Zelenskyy quipped “Is this being shown on television now?” Then, he said he would not comment.

The Ukrainian leader, known for fiery speeches and direct appeals, took the time to politely acknowledge the U.S. support to Ukraine so far - and to invite a certain Republican presidential candidate to visit.

Trump’s threat against NATO allies that underspend on defense was just his latest utterance to cause anxiety in Kyiv. The former president has also claimed that he could settle the war within a day - an assertion that has alarmed supporters of Ukraine who fear that Ukraine would be forced to surrender large swaths of sovereign territory.

Zelenskyy said he would be pleased to work with Trump - and also to show him around. If he comes to Ukraine, Zelenskyy said: “I am ready to go with him to the front line.”

European policymakers at the conference said they are increasingly concerned that weakening support from Washington means that Putin might be tempted to test NATO if Trump wins. Some leaders are expressing fresh interest in bolstering Europe’s nuclear arsenal to hedge against a wandering Washington. Others say they believe they need to deepen European defense cooperation in case Trump drops U.S. guarantees for their security.

Harris, speaking alongside Zelenskyy on Saturday, told reporters that “we are unwavering, and that has nothing to do with an election cycle. It has to do with who we are and what kind of country we want to be - one that stands with our friends.”

But one senior European diplomat at the conference said that there was “a difference between the sound and the picture” in the message coming from the United States. The picture, the diplomat said, was obvious, especially with Republican lawmakers at the conference talking about their need for border security. That message fell flat with some of the Europeans, who noted that they had accommodated a wave of millions of Ukrainian refugees for the last two years. The diplomat spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak frankly about their uncertainty about U.S. commitments.

Ukrainian leaders, meanwhile, said that they were determined to keep fighting, but they also said that they were approaching a crucial and dangerous threshold as they run out of munitions for their air defense systems. If Kyiv is no longer able to protect its skies, they said, civilians in Ukraine’s cities will be vastly more at risk, and its economy will take a hit, too.

The impact of the funding delay is already being felt on the battlefield, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg told reporters in Munich on Saturday.

“There has been a reduction in the flow of standard ammunition and air defense,” he said. “That makes it urgent to have a decision in the United States.”

The sheer size of the U.S. economy and the strength of its military make unblocking aid the priority for Ukraine and for NATO allies, he said.

“Now the most important single decision is for the U.S. to agree to a package of support for Ukraine,” he said. “Just because of the magnitude and the military capabilities that the United States has.”

Speaking alongside Zelenskyy, Harris repeated what has become a U.S. mantra: that there is no plan B for how to help Ukraine because plan A, passing the $61 billion in support for Kyiv through Congress, will eventually succeed.

Many European policymakers in Munich said they don’t trust that that will actually happen. They said that they lack good substitutes for U.S. military aid while the European defense industry ramps up but that they expect to be better able to produce large quantities of shells and more advanced equipment in the coming years.

For now, some of them think the best option might be European purchases of U.S. military equipment on behalf of Kyiv. But, they add, such a move has uncertain political support on the continent and is unlikely to lead to weapons deliveries at the speed necessary to aid Ukraine amid its current battlefield dilemma.

“I don’t think there was a member of Congress of either party that didn’t stand up and swear on a Bible in the first few weeks of the war that we will be with Ukraine,” said one member of the large congressional delegation at the conference, Sen. Mark R. Warner (D-Va.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, who expressed frustration at House Republicans’ wavering support for Kyiv.