noscript
Semafor LogoMorgan Chalfant
Morgan Chalfant
politicsNorth America

Zelenskyy takes Washington

Sign up for Semafor Principals: An insider’s guide to power in D.C. Read it now.

Title iconThe News
REUTERS/Handout

Hello, man of the year: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is making a major trip to Washington today to meet with President Biden and address lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

In addition to holding a press conference with the Ukrainian president, Biden will also announce a new aid package for Ukraine that includes Patriot missile systems, a senior Biden administration official told reporters. The advanced weaponry will help Ukraine better defend against a barrage of Russian missile attacks that have left swaths of the country intermittently without power.

The visit will be Zelenskyy’s first known journey outside of Ukraine since Russia attacked his country in late February. The plans were being laid for some time, despite being kept secret until Tuesday evening, according to the official, who said Biden discussed the idea with Zelenskyy on a Dec. 11 call.

undefined headshotMorgan's view

The visit is significant for several reasons, not least of which is the fact that Zelenskyy will be able to make the case for continued Ukraine support as skepticism bubbles on the right.

Enthusiasm for Ukraine’s cause has been waning among the most conservative Republicans, particularly in the House, with a vocal minority protesting additional assistance to the embattled country. One of those lawmakers, Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga. reacted to the news by accusing Zelenskyy of being a “shadow president” and demanded Congress “put America first.” Others have demanded more oversight of the funds.

AD

Still, the White House insists that support for Ukraine in Washington remains strong and bipartisan, pointing to a $45 billion in additional assistance Congress is poised to pass as part of a giant funding bill before the end of the week. Key Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., have stalwartly supported aid to Ukraine ever since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion.

“This isn’t about sending a message to a particular political party. This is about sending a message to Putin and sending a message to the world that America will be there for Ukraine as long as it takes,” the senior administration official told reporters.

Evelyn Farkas, executive director at the McCain Institute who served at the Pentagon under President Obama, told me that Zelenskyy’s decision to travel to Washington “is interesting because he either has a new different request or feels that it’s important at this moment in time before the new Congress comes in to rally the members.” She also said the trip probably wouldn’t raise any serious safety risks for the leader.

“There have been people going in and out of Ukraine so it’s not necessarily risky for him physically, nor is it risky politically because his people are firmly behind him,” Farkas said.

Other groups of Ukrainian officials descended on Washington in recent weeks to meet with lawmakers and members of the foreign policy establishment. Maria Mezentseva, a Ukrainian member of parliament, told me at the time that she made clear to lawmakers she met with that Ukraine was conducting stringent oversight of funds provided by the U.S.

“Being transparent is a priority and I think it will maintain our friendship and our support in the future, which we highly rely on,” she said in an interview earlier this month.

Title iconThe View From Moscow

In an unusual moment of candor, Putin recently appeared to admit that the combat in Ukraine’s occupied eastern regions wasn’t going smoothly. "The situation in the Donetsk and Luhansk People's Republics, in the Kherson and Zaporizhzhia regions is extremely difficult," the strongman said in a taped address to his country’s security services, according to Reuters.

Title iconNotable
  • Putin also made his own international trip on Monday, traveling to close ally Belarus for a tete-a-tete with its president, Aleksandr G. Lukashenko. The visit raised concerns that Russia could try to use Belarus, which neighbors Ukraine from the north, as the staging ground for another attack. However, a State Department Official told the BBC that there “were conflicting views in the Russian government about whether to launch a winter offensive,” and that shortages of ammo and manpower could limit their ability to do so.
AD