(Bloomberg) — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has pressed the US Congress for tanks, planes and other money to help repel Russia’s invasion, describing the war as a battle of democracy against tyranny as he sought to get the support of some skeptical Republican lawmakers.
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In his first trip abroad since President Vladimir Putin’s forces invaded on Feb. 24, Zelenskiy told a joint meeting of Congress Wednesday evening that U.S. support has so far been crucial and predicted that the year to coming will turn the tide of war. He called for more sanctions and demanded that the Russians responsible for the war be brought to justice.
“Your support is crucial, not just to withstand such a struggle, but to reach the turning point to win on the battlefield,” Zelenskiy said in a 27-minute speech that was repeatedly punctuated by standing ovations from of MPs from both sides. “Your money isn’t charity, it’s investments in global security and democracy that we manage in the most responsible way.”
The speech, delivered after Zelenskiy met in the White House with President Joe Biden, was aimed as much at ordinary people in the United States and around the world as it was at lawmakers in attendance. The applause was loud and thunderous, worthy of the broad bipartisan support Zelenskiy has garnered, even as Republicans who take control of the House of Representatives next month are promising tighter scrutiny of aid going to Ukraine.
The applause was tepid from some Republicans who oppose more aid, such as Representatives Matt Gaetz and Lauren Boebert, while others cheered but didn’t join the frequent standing ovations that punctuated the comments.
In a sign of American support, the Biden administration on Wednesday announced $1.85 billion in additional military aid to Ukraine, including a battery of Patriot missiles to help the country bolster its defenses. At the White House, Biden told Zelenskiy that the American people were with him “every step of the way” and “we will stay with you as long as it takes.”
The fact that Zelenskiy made the visit — conducted under close surveillance and requiring a train ride to Poland to avoid flying into Ukrainian airspace and risking being shot down — underscores the growing urgency to get more weapons and cash to finance the conflict. He said he presented Biden with a ten-point peace initiative, though he did not provide further details.
“If your patriots stop Russian terror against our cities, it will allow Ukrainian patriots to work to their fullest to defend our freedom,” Zelenskiy told lawmakers, referring to the high-tech air defense system Biden has promised to send him.
He said that Ukraine has artillery and shells, but said: “Is that enough? Honestly, not really,” he added, “I assure you that Ukrainian soldiers can handle American tanks and aircraft perfectly on their own.” It was a rebuttal to US officials who argued that some advanced weapons would require too much training.
Early responses to the speech were positive. Senator Rob Portman of Ohio, a top Republican supporter of Ukraine, said he would help Zelenskiy in his search for fighter planes and tanks. Portman, who is retiring from Congress, said he is confident the House will provide more aid next year as long as accountability is in place for the funds.
“I think he’s done a great job, putting it very hard on what’s at stake,” said Portman of Zelenskiy. “In his own way he also said, ‘Give us a little more help and we can get the win. ‘”
Since the beginning of the war, with the help of the United States, NATO members and other allies, Ukraine has inflicted repeated defeats on Moscow on the battlefield and has pushed troops back from territory first conquered when the tanks headed towards Kiev. But Russia is retooling, targeting civilian and energy infrastructure and leaving millions of people without electricity or heat during the winter. Zelenskiy has repeatedly asked for more weapons than he has been given so far.
As part of his effort to free up more funds and equipment, he used the speech to portray the battle against Russia as a defense of state sovereignty and democracy.
“This fight will define what world our children and grandchildren will live in,” he told US lawmakers, addressing them in English, dressed in his familiar olive green sweatshirt and cargo pants. “It will define whether it will be a democracy for Americans, for Ukrainians, for everyone.”
At the end of the speech, Zelenskiy turned and handed Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a Ukrainian flag signed by soldiers he had met on the front lines a day ago. In return, Pelosi gave him a folded American flag that he flew over the US capital Wednesday in honor of his country.
Before Zelenskiy landed in Washington, Putin promised there would be “no caps” on military spending for the war. Its defense minister has said Russia will expand its army by more than a quarter to 1.5 million men as it pursues its military goals in Ukraine.
While Zelenskiy has thanked allies for support, he has at times chastised leaders for being too reluctant to arm Ukrainians who he says are fighting Russia and dying on their behalf.
“It was a call to action,” Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a Democrat from New Hampshire, told reporters. “There will be some people who won’t support aid just like there always are, but the majority of members on both sides of the aisle will be very supportive.”
–With assistance from Erik Wasson and Roxana Tiron.
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