Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made a historic speech to a rare joint session of Congress on Wednesday, thanking the U.S. for helping his country resist an ongoing invasion and warning that significant fighting lies ahead.
“Ukraine is alive and kicking,” Zelenskyy said. “Our two nations are allies in this battle, and next year will be a turning point.”
The Ukrainian leader noted that because of the way U.S. support has become critical to his nation’s resistance, American lawmakers’ decisions about continued aid to Ukraine “can save millions of people.”
“We have artillery. Is it enough? Honestly, not really… Your money is not charity. It’s an investment in global security and diplomacy that we handle in the most responsible way,” Zeleneksyy said. “Your well-being is the product of your national security, the result of your struggle for independence and your many victories. We Ukrainians will also go through our war of independence and freedom with dignity and success.”
Zelenskyy’s trip to Washington is his first outside Ukraine since the Russian offensive began on Feb. 24. He addressed lawmakers after meeting with President Joe Biden in the afternoon — a summit that included an announcement of new White House support for Ukraine, including the transfer of the sophisticated Patriot missile defense system. Separately, legislators from both parties agreed earlier this week to grant Ukraine $45 billion in additional military aid.
A growing number of Republicans have questioned U.S. assistance for Ukraine. The skeptics’ arguments range from the technical — proposing audits to ensure weapons are used as intended — to the conspiratorial, amid claims by far-right figures like Fox News host Tucker Carlson that weapon manufacturers are colluding with the Ukrainians to prolong the war.
The group includes Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), who is expected to wield significant power in the House of Representatives once the GOP takes over the chamber next year. Greene bashed Zelenskyy’s visit as “absurd,” calling him the United States’ “shadow president.”
Zelenskyy made a clear appeal to Republican critics, highlighting how Iran ― a top foreign policy worry for the GOP ― is helping Russia and noting that U.S. forces are not engaged in fighting with the Russians.
“Ukraine never asked American soldiers to fight on our land instead of us. I assure you that Ukrainian soldiers can perfectly operate American tanks and planes for themselves,” he said. “I thank President Biden and both parties… for your invaluable assistance. I thank your cities and your citizens who supported Ukraine this year.”
Still, a senior Biden administration official on Tuesday downplayed the idea that Zelenskyy’s visit was designed to rally support and win over Republican critics, saying it was instead intended to signal resilience to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Meanwhile, some prominent conservatives in and close to Congress — like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Bradley Bowman, a scholar at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies think tank — expressed continued support for Ukraine.
“We aren’t doing Ukraine favors. We have a partner willing to fight hard to defend our common interests and principles,” wrote Bowman, a former GOP congressional aide, on Twitter.
But legislators are seen as unlikely to approve more major assistance to the Ukrainians once Republicans run the House — an alarming prospect for Zelenskyy, who has pledged to retake Russian-occupied territory but faces a much better-armed opponent in Putin.
Earlier Wednesday, Rep. Ralph Norman (R-S.C.) of the increasingly powerful House Freedom Caucus told Politico he refused to attend the Zelenskyy address and could not imagine supporting more funding for Ukraine.
“His words will not change my mind,” Norman reportedly said.
A group of hard-right legislators ― included Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) and Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) ― did attend the session. Yet when a reporter from the The Dispatch approached Gaetz afterward, he responded that he remained wary of aid for Ukraine and added, “I loved the fashion choices.”
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday night, moderate Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (Pa.) argued that he can persuade his colleagues to see a middle path.
“Nobody wants a blank check, of course, nobody should support that. You can have funding continue, and you can have transparency and accountability… we should demand both, and we will,” Fitzpatrick said, according to CNN.
Zelenskyy gave a Ukrainian flag from the frontlines to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and emphasized that he sees his country and the U.S. as aligned in a global struggle.
“This battle cannot be frozen or postponed; it cannot be ignored, hoping that the ocean or something else will provide protection,” Ukraine’s president said. “The world is too interconnected and interdependent to allow someone to stand aside and at the same time to feel safe.”