When Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky steps to the House of Representatives rostrum to address the body that is poised to approve more than $40bn in defence and economic assistance for his country’s fight against Russia, it will be his last chance to thank the 117th Congress for the bipartisan comity that has seen the US send nearly $90bn to Kiev since the war began 300 days ago.
In a letter to her House colleagues, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi noted that the Ukrainian actor turned wartime leader’s address to Congress comes just over eight decades to the day her father, then Maryland Representative Thomas D’Alessandro Sr, watched British Prime Minister Winston Churchill exhort the House and Senate to be full partners in the UK’s fight against Hitler.
“Eighty-one years later this week, it is particularly poignant for me to be present when another heroic leader addresses the Congress in a time of war – and with Democracy itself on the line,” she said.
Churchill’s speech to Congress came not long after the US declared war in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour, and was well-received by a nation that had reluctantly discarded the isolationism that had been the rule for most America’s short history at the time.
But with just weeks until the ascendant Republican majority — complete with a renewed isolationist wing — seizes control of the House, Mr Zelensky’s visit is his last chance to mount an in-person charm offensive in hopes of keeping enough GOP House members convinced of the necessity of continuing — and increasing — US support in the coming years.
Speaking in the Ukrainian city of Bahkmut — a front-line area in the disputed Donetsk region — Mr Zelensky told a group of soldiers he plans to tell Mr Biden and the US Congress that the support America has provided his defence forces thus far “is not enough”.
Biden administration officials have hinted that they are planning to keep Kyiv’s fight against Russia at top of mind for the foreseeable future, with one official telling reporters late Tuesday that the US “will be there for Ukraine for as long as it takes”.
In the Senate, such plans remain largely uncontroversial with the powers that be. In a speech from the upper chamber’s floor on Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell pointed out that the omnibus appropriations package negotiated between the White House and Congressional leaders contained more funding for Ukraine than the Biden administration had asked for, and said he looks forward to “hearing from the Ukrainian people’s elected leader at a critical moment in their struggle for their safety and sovereignty against Russia’s unhinged aggression”.
His Democratic counterpart, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, echoed the Kentucky Republican’s sentiments in remarks of his own, noting that Mr Zelensky’s visit will mark “a day to remember in the history of the United States Congress”.
“It is always a high honor to welcome a foreign head of state to Congress, but it is nearly unheard of to hear from leader who is fighting for his life, fighting for his country’s survival, and fighting to preserve the very idea of democracy. It shows the importance President Zelenskyy places on us continuing to give him robust help,” he said, adding that he hopes what he described as former president Donald Trump’s “friendship” with Russian President Vladimir Putin is not pushing the GOP to “turn a blind eye to Ukraine’s suffering and desperate need for help”.
But despite the New York Democrat’s fervent hopes, the incoming GOP majority in the “people’s house” may prove a significant stumbling block on the road to continued US backing for Kyiv’s efforts to repel the Russian invaders.
A previous generation of Republicans would have thought it unthinkable to deny aid to a Ukrainian government in a fight for the country’s life against Russia.
In December 1994, then-US Ambassador to Hungary Donald Blinken (the father of current Secretary of State Antony Blinken) attending a signing ceremony for the Budapest Memorandum on Security Assurances, an agreement between the US, the United Kingdom, Russia, China, France and Ukraine (plus two other ex-Soviet republics, Kazakhstan and Belarus) under which Kyiv gave up the Soviet-built nuclear arsenal it had inherited when the Soviet Union dissolved in exchange for “security assurances” from the nuclear power signatories.
Republicans in Congress at the time supported US participation in the agreement, and support for Kyiv became a GOP priority after Russia illegally invaded and annexed the country’s Crimea region in 2014. At the time, many in the GOP pushed for lethal aid to be transferred to Ukraine’s armed forces, such as the Javelin anti-tank missiles that have been used to great effect against Russian tanks this year. And notwithstanding the attempt to illegally withhold further aid that led to his first impeachment trial, former president Donald Trump often boasted of his decision to allow the Javelins to be included in aid packages for Kyiv.
But when Russia launched another invasion in late February, the conditions in the US were quite different.
While some in the GOP, most notably Mr McConnell and others in the upper chamber such as outgoing Ohio Senator Rob Portman, were keen on approving as much assistance to Kyiv as possible, others have adopted the opposite position out a knee-jerk desire to oppose anything Mr Biden and the Democrats appear to be for.
When news broke of Mr Zelensky’s imminent arrival in Washington, the ex-president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr, took to Twitter to denounce the Ukrainian leader as “basically an ungrateful international welfare queen,” citing his comments in Bahkmut.
Others, including extremist Republican members such as Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, have levelled baseless accusations of corruption against Mr Zelensky and called for a halt to all aid to Kyiv plus an “audit” of what has been delivered thus far.
Another, Florida Representative Matt Gaetz, said last month that he would not lend his vote to approve “one more dollar” for Ukraine’s defence, consistent with the position he adopted just days after the war began when he asked attendees at the Conservative Political Action Conference: “Why should Americans have to pay the costs for freedom elsewhere when our own leaders won’t stand up for our freedom here?”
Other GOP-aligned figures have mocked the nearly universal support for Kyiv’s defence among Democrats and many so-called “establishment Republicans” as a faddish misadventure, or complained that defending Ukraine from an invasion by a hostile power intent on destabilising western democracies is hypocritical because the same leaders who support it won’t sign on to militarising the US-Mexico border to prevent nonwhite migrants from claiming asylum.
But it’s not just the fringe who is questioning whether to continue supporting Mr Biden’s efforts to help Mr Zelensky fight back against Mr Putin’s forces.
The putative incoming House Speaker, California Republican Kevin McCarthy, has gone so far as to say there will be no “blank check” for Ukraine in future spending packages, and has decried the Senate’s decision to include support for Kyiv in the omnibus appropriations bill set for passage on Wednesday.
A top adviser to Mr Trump, Stephen Miller, has also called for the GOP to use support for Ukraine as a bargaining chip to extract significant policy concessions from Democrats.
And while Mr McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, has said supporting Kyiv’s war efforts will remain a top GOP priority when the 118th Congress convenes, Mr Zelensky will have to use all his powers of persuasion on Wednesday to ensure that the centre holds and American weapons and funds keep flowing to his troops.