When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last visited Washington, it was a top-secret journey and his first trip outside his country since Russia invaded Ukraine. He received a hero’s welcome at the White House and on Capitol Hill that day in December, evoking comparisons to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s wartime visit to Washington in 1941.
Zelensky returned here on Thursday to dramatically different circumstances. A growing number of Republicans are vowing to reject additional aid for Ukraine as a U.S. government shutdown looms. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) denied the Ukrainian leader’s request to address a joint session of Congress, and Zelensky was unable to tout any major breakthroughs in his military’s current counteroffensive against Russia.
For Zelensky, the immediate challenge on Thursday was to cajole lawmakers to support the Biden administration’s latest request for $24 billion in military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine. “I am in Washington to strengthen Ukraine’s position to defend our children, our families, our homes, freedom and democracy in the world,” Zelensky said at the start of his meeting with President Biden in the Oval Office.
In private, his request was even more dire: “If we don’t get the aid, we will lose the war,” Zelensky told members of the Senate in a closed-door meeting, according to Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.).
Perhaps the most high-stakes meeting of Zelensky’s trip to Washington was with McCarthy, who is navigating a right-wing rebellion among House Republicans on spending for Ukraine and other matters. Instead of convening a large forum for Zelensky to appeal to House lawmakers — as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) did in his chamber — McCarthy met privately with the Ukrainian leader and peppered him with questions related to accountability, strategy and tactics, said people familiar with the meeting, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive exchange.
McCarthy zeroed in specifically on how open-ended the conflict might be and whether Ukraine’s military is using U.S.-provided weapons in a responsible manner, the people said.
The Ukrainians did not view McCarthy’s tough questioning as isolationist or politicized, the people familiar with the meeting said. Kyiv views McCarthy as a sympathetic, albeit embattled, figure whose speakership is under tremendous strain. Both sides felt the meeting was productive despite Ukraine’s trepidation about a collapse of support among House Republicans, the people said.
McCarthy on Thursday signaled appreciation for Zelensky’s leadership, applauding his efforts to root out corruption by replacing his defense minister and removing other officials working in defense procurement, changes that McCarthy suggested had been “requested.” And some of McCarthy’s allies suggested he was favorably inclined toward providing Ukraine with more weapons.
“The speaker, like me, has shown strong support,” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters after meeting with Zelensky. “But we’re frustrated with the administration’s slowness in [providing] the weapons.”
He said that McCarthy’s “takeaway” was that Ukraine needs ATACMS missiles — a type of long-range precision artillery that many hawks in Congress have been pushing for — as well as F-16 warplanes, and needs these things “yesterday.”
Biden announced a new package of military assistance for Ukraine that includes artillery, ammunition and air defense capabilities. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that ATACMS missiles were not part of this package but that Biden has not taken them “off the table in the future.”
Ukraine has promised it will not use Western weapons to strike targets inside Russia, preferring instead to strike at arms depots and logistic centers in Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine.
But while Democrats have lined up behind Biden’s proposed aid package, Republican hard-liners want to see the flow of assistance cut off entirely, and McCarthy has declined to publicly support more Ukraine funding. At times, the speaker has echoed the skepticism from some of his conference’s most conservative members, raising concerns about a lack of accountability around the funding and arguing that Ukraine lacks a “plan to win.”
McCarthy, who has spent the week struggling to calm a tumultuous dispute among House Republicans over funding the U.S. government, rejected Zelensky’s request to deliver a joint address to Congress because of “what we’re in the middle of.” Zelensky gave such an address when he visited Washington last year, receiving rapturous applause from both sides of the aisle.
McCarthy on Thursday also was conspicuously absent from Zelensky’s photo ops on Capitol Hill, which were joined by other congressional leaders, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
Biden, in contrast, has remained unequivocal in his support for Ukraine, arguing that if the world’s democracies abandon Ukraine, it would have devastating consequences and encourage other autocrats to invade neighboring countries. At the United Nations this week, the president sought to rally the world to continue supporting Ukraine, despite the economic pain some countries are feeling as a result.
At the White House on Thursday, Biden said the United States is committed to “supporting a just and lasting peace, one that respects Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
“No nation can be truly secure in the world if, in fact, we don’t stand up and defend the freedom of Ukraine from the face of this aggression, brutality and aggression,” Biden said.
For Zelensky, the visit to Washington came just after Russia launched its biggest missile attacks against Ukraine in weeks, increasing the urgency of his plea for additional funding. Sullivan said Zelensky is keenly aware of the U.S. political climate as Ukraine aid hangs in the balance while Congress remains mired in spending battles.
“President Zelensky is not coming here like a babe in the woods, not having any understanding that, you know, we have to work through as we approach the end of the fiscal year funding for the government going forward,” Sullivan said. “He recognizes that that’s going to be contested, that there are different perspectives.”
Still, Sullivan said, the White House remains confident Congress will ended up passing the additional funding for Kyiv.
“There is a vocal, quite small minority of members who are raising questions,” he said. “There is a very strong, overwhelming majority of members, both Democrats and Republicans, who want to see aid continue, and I believe that’s where the American people are as well. So I believe that will shine through.”
But in the end, despite the White House’s ardent support for Ukraine, U.S. officials have made clear their ability to help Kyiv will be severely restricted if Congress does not approve the White House’s aid package. The future of that funding remains unclear, especially as the House Republicans’ disarray seems to be bringing a U.S. government shutdown closer.
“I am counting on the good judgment of the United States Congress,” Biden said. “There is no alternative.”
For the second time this week, House Republicans lost a vote Thursday to move forward a Defense Department appropriations bill, part of a wider battle between the party’s far-right and moderate factions over funding the government.
Republican leaders are also struggling to move forward on a stopgap bill that would fund the U.S. government beyond the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30. That bill would continue providing funding for the Ukrainian war effort at current levels, which is opposed by some hard-line conservatives who want to end U.S. support for Kyiv altogether.
After meeting with lawmakers, Zelensky told reporters he’d had “frank and constructive dialogue” on Capitol Hill. In the Senate, members of both parties described the gathering as respectful — Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.) said the Ukrainian leader displayed “a lot of gravitas” — but said Zelensky’s message also conveyed a sense of urgency.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said senators did not shy away from asking Zelensky difficult questions during the closed-door meeting.
“‘What would you say to my constituents who question whether we should be spending all this money?’” Blumenthal said, giving an example of the types of questions that were asked. “And, of course, the answer is, ‘They’re on the front lines against Putin, and he will keep going if he’s not stopped there.’”
Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who asked Zelensky what Ukraine most urgently needs, said the Ukrainian leader reiterated his pleas for air defense.
“Not only for their military, but to protect their energy system, their water and electricity,” said King. “And that’s something I think we need to keep working on, and we need to work with our allies.”
During his day in Washington, Zelensky, who was joined by his wife, Olena Zelenska, visited the Pentagon and laid flowers at the National 9/11 Pentagon Memorial. He also met with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin; Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and other military leaders.