Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy came to Washington armed with a message: United States assistance isn’t a handout.
“Your money is not charity,” he told a joint session of Congress on Wednesday evening. “It’s an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.”
Fresh off a meeting with President Biden, the Ukrainian leader tried to drive home the message that American backing is “crucial,” appreciated, and that it can help Ukraine defeat the Russian onslaught and stand up for democracy beyond its borders.
“This struggle will define in what world our children and grandchildren will live,” he said.
Zelenskyy’s address seemed aimed directly at conservatives skeptical of further assistance to Ukraine, who have argued the U.S. should focus its attention and resources on domestic problems.
“I think he told us what I wanted to hear,” Rep. Dan Crenshaw, R-Texas, who has supported security assistance to Ukraine, told Semafor. “Two things: Gratitude and what’s at stake.”
But the address showed little signs of changing minds on the right. House Republicans like Reps. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla. and Lauren Boebert, R-Colo. attended the address but remained seated when others engaged in standing ovations. Gaetz said he was there “out of respect, not out of agreement” and remained unmoved. Most of the caucus was not in attendance. The holidays were likely a major factor, but Rep. Thomas Massie, R-Ky. said he skipped the speech in protest.
To be sure, there’s still plenty of bipartisan support for Ukraine, particularly in the Senate. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who called aid “a direct investment in cold, hard American interests” on Wednesday, negotiated the sprawling spending bill expected to pass this week that includes $45 billion in assistance for Ukraine.
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, R-Pa. said he would make continuing Ukraine aid his “number one priority” in the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus he co-chairs.
And the opponents may not change much, besides potentially ushering more stringent oversight of the funds in the House next year, which Republican leader Kevin McCarthy has named as a goal.
But U.S. patience may not be unlimited, especially if a potential ceasefire someday emerged. Even some progressive Democrats have suggested the U.S. should take a more active role in bringing Ukraine to the negotiating table with Russia. That was the theme of an open letter to President Biden released by a group of House progressives earlier this year, the backlash to which was so strong that it forced them to withdraw the note. (Reps. Pramila Jayapal, D-Wash. and Barbara Lee, D-Calif. issued a joint statement Wednesday night saying they expect “support from progressives for aid for Ukraine included in the year-end spending agreement.”)
For now, Russia doesn’t look open to negotiations and Zelenskyy, who put out a peace plan last month, has made clear Ukraine won’t cede territory. In what might be interpreted as a rebuttal to critics of his diplomacy, Zelenskyy concluded with a reference to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s declaration of war on Japan after Pearl Harbor.
“The American people in their righteous might will win through absolute victory,” Zelenskyy said, quoting FDR. “The Ukrainian people will win too — absolutely."
The View From Trump World
Though former president Donald Trump, who in office had a famously fraught relationship with Ukraine, has not weighed in on Zelenskyy’s address, his allies have been competing to sway his position on aid for months.
Donald Trump, Jr. called Zelenskyy an “international welfare queen” in a tweet on Wednesday. Former campaign adviser Steve Cortes criticized Zelenskyy’s visit to Semafor as “shameful theatrics.”
Michael Caputo, a longtime Trump ally who served in his administration and supports Ukraine’s efforts, told Semafor he honestly did not know how Trump would approach the issue as president. But he said Trump “is paying attention” to the war in Ukraine “because it’s something that he sees as a damn shame,” and that he’s likely “trying to find a way for a peaceful solution.”