Zelenskyy Receives Mixed Reception in DC Visit to Shore Up Support

September 22, 2023 by Dan McCue
Zelenskyy Receives Mixed Reception in DC Visit to Shore Up Support
Presidents Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelenskyy with first ladies Jill Biden and Olena Zelenska at the White House on Sept. 21, 2023. (Photo by Dan McCue)

WASHINGTON — Nine months after being accorded “rock star” treatment during his first visit here in the wake of the Russian invasion of his country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy received a markedly different welcome on Thursday.

While a certain amount of pomp was still in evidence at the White House during his mid-afternoon arrival at the South Portico with his wife Olena by his side, things were far different on Capitol Hill.

Where former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Vice President Kamala Harris had unfurled a large Ukrainian flag as Zelenskyy spoke to a joint session of Congress last year, current Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., laid low during Zelenskyy’s two-and-half hours on the Hill.

Struggling with an intra-conference budget battle that centers in part on continued U.S. aid to Ukraine, McCarthy opted out of joining House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries, D-N.Y., in greeting Zelenskyy upon his arrival.

McCarthy also declined Zelenskyy’s request to again appear before a joint session of Congress, explaining later that in light of the ongoing disagreements on a continuing resolution to keep the government operating, there simply wasn’t time to schedule such an appearance on short notice.

That left it to Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., to handle the public aspect of the Capitol visit, flanking Zelenskyy as he walked down a short hallway to a meeting with senators. 

Afterwards, McConnell shared a photo of himself with Zelenskyy on social media, writing that “American support for Ukraine is not charity. It’s in our own direct interests.”

Later, as he was being greeted by President Joe Biden and First Lady Dr. Jill Biden at the White House, a reporter shouted a question, asking what this daylong visit to Washington meant to Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people.

“It means everything,” Zelenskyy said before the two couples turned and walked into the White House.

If the visit by Ukraine’s leader was more low key than last year, it nevertheless provided him with an opportunity to provide lawmakers with a guardedly optimistic assessment of the war’s progress, answer questions about how the $113 billion American taxpayer dollars they approved to support Ukraine are being spent on the campaign to expel Russian forces and assure them he’s doing everything he can to keep corruption in check.

After a red carpet welcome at the White House, Biden told reporters gathered in the Oval Office that “the people of Ukraine have shown enormous bravery” in the face of unprovoked Russian aggression.

“Together with our partners and allies, the American people are determined to do all we can to ensure the world stands with you,” he said.

“Russia alone stands in the way of peace,” he added.

Zelenskyy, dressed in his trademark olive drab uniform and speaking in English from note cards, told the assembled reporters that he had frank conversations with members of Congress. 

He also said he looked forward to a discussion of further military support from the U.S., “with a special emphasis on air.”

“Today I’m in Washington to strengthen our coalition to defend Ukrainian children, families, our homes, freedom and democracy in the world,” Zelenskyy said. “I started my day in the U.S. Congress to thank its members and the people in America for their big, huge support.”

At the moment, however, Congress is standing in the way of fulfilling Biden’s request for an additional $24 billion to help meet Ukraine’s military and humanitarian needs. 

Asked if he had gotten any assurances from lawmakers that money might be coming soon, Zelenskyy paused before answering, allowing Biden to answer instead.

“I’m counting on the good judgment of the United States Congress. There is no alternative,” Biden said.

The president also announced another U.S. aid package for Ukraine worth $325 million.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the package would include additional air defense, artillery ammunition, cluster munitions and other arms.

“I thank the United States of America, Mr. President, for the new defense package for Ukraine, a very powerful package,” Zelenskyy said in the Oval Office. “Thank you so much, and it has exactly what our soldiers need now.”

Later at a National Archives event honoring American volunteers who have offered Ukraine humanitarian assistance, Zelenskyy told the crowd “there is not a single Ukrainian who doesn’t feel gratitude for America.”

“America has saved Ukrainian lives,” he said.

During a White House briefing with reporters shortly before Zelenskyy’s arrival at the White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden saw the visit as an opportunity to “send the unmistakable message that in the 21st century, a dictator cannot be allowed to conquer or carve up his neighbor’s territory.”

“If we allow that here, it will happen elsewhere in ways that will undermine fundamental security, not to mention the values that the American people hold so dear,” Sullivan said.

Zelenskyy left Washington Thursday night, and was scheduled to address the Canadian Parliament and meet with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau in Ottawa on Friday.

Dan can be reached at [email protected] and at https://twitter.com/DanMcCue

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