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Zelenskyy makes case for more aid to U.S. Congress as support under strain

Click to play video: 'Zelenskyy thanks Biden for ‘vital assistance’ during Ukrainian leader’s White House visit'
Zelenskyy thanks Biden for ‘vital assistance’ during Ukrainian leader’s White House visit
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said on Thursday he had a frank and constructive dialog with U.S. lawmakers and looked forward to discussing Ukraine's military needs and its air defence with President Joe Biden. Zelenskyy thanked Biden for his “strong words,” noting that it was already the third time that the pair of world leaders have met this year – Sep 21, 2023

President Volodymyr Zelenskyy worked to shore up U.S. support for Ukraine on a whirlwind visit to Washington on Thursday, delivering an upbeat message on the war’s progress while facing new questions about the flow of American dollars that for 19 months have helped keep his troops in the fight against Russian forces.

The Ukrainian leader received a far quieter reception than the hero’s welcome he got last year from Congress, but also won generally favorable comments on the aid he says he needs to stave off defeat.

Zelenskyy, in long-sleeve olive drab, came to the Capitol with a firm message in private talks with Republican and Democratic leaders. The Ukrainians have a solid war plan, and “they are winning,” lawmakers quoted him as assuring them, at a time that the world is watching Western support for Kyiv.

President Joe Biden gave Zelenskyy a red-carpet arrival on the White House South lawn and more ceremony than world leaders normally receive, and made clear his concern with Congress.

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Emerging opposition to continued Ukraine funding from a faction of Republican House members aligned with President Donald Trump is threatening what had been easy congressional approval for four previous rounds of funding for Ukraine, delivering $113 billion. Any continuing momentum toward opposing U.S. aid for Ukraine also potentially risks public backing for the war effort.

Asked about the funding issue after meeting with Zelensky, Biden answered, “I’m counting on the good judgment of the United States Congress. There’s no alternative.”

Click to play video: 'Zelenskyy pleading for more aid as Russia’s war in Ukraine rages on'
Zelenskyy pleading for more aid as Russia’s war in Ukraine rages on

It was Zelenskyy’s second visit to Washington since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 and came as Biden’s request to Congress for an additional $24 billion for Ukraine’s military and humanitarian needs is hanging in the balance. Resistance on the latest request could lead to delays or reductions.

The administration did announce another $325 million Thursday in what’s known as presidential drawdown assistance for Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the package would include additional air defense, artillery ammunition, cluster munitions and other arms.

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House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who faces opposition from the far-right Republicans aligned with Trump, notably chose not to join House Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries in greeting the Ukrainian president when he arrived. And McCarthy also confirmed that he declined Zelenskyy’s request for a joint session of Congress, as happened during the Ukrainian president’s dramatic visit to Washington last winter, saying there wasn’t time for that on short notice.

But McCarthy praised the answers that Ukrainians delivered to lawmakers Thursday.

“It was direct, I thought it was honest, they were answering the questions,” McCarthy said. “I heard a lot of positive things.”

Click to play video: 'Zelenskyy urges global unity against Russia at UN'
Zelenskyy urges global unity against Russia at UN

Lawmakers who attended the private meeting described questioning Zelenskyy on the way forward for Ukraine’s counteroffensive, as the fight to roll back invading Russian forces moves closer to the two-year mark without major breakthroughs in Russia’s heavily mined lines.

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Zelensky “conceded that it’s tough, very tough to overcome entrenched defenses,” Independent Sen. Angus King said. “They believe they will make slow but steady progress, but it’s not going to be quick.”

Back home, Russia launched its heaviest strikes in a month in the hours before Zelenskyy’s arrival at Congress, killing three, igniting fires and damaging energy infrastructure as Russian missiles and artillery pounded cities across Ukraine.

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan underscored Thursday that Biden would seek to drive home with Zelenskyy’s visit that the U.S. and the world “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 the fundamental security, not to mention the values that the American people hold so dear,” Sullivan said.

Click to play video: 'Ukraine’s Zelenskyy accuses Russia of genocide in 1st in-person UN appearance since invasion began'
Ukraine’s Zelenskyy accuses Russia of genocide in 1st in-person UN appearance since invasion began

Biden has called on world leaders to stand strong with Ukraine, even as he faces domestic political divisions at home. A hard-right flank of Republicans, led by Trump, Biden’s chief rival in the 2024 race for the White House, is increasingly opposed to sending more money overseas.

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Zelenskyy faces challenges in Europe as well as cracks emerge in what had been a largely united Western alliance behind Ukraine.

Late Wednesday, Poland’s prime minister said his country is no longer sending arms to Ukraine, a comment that appeared aimed at pressuring Kyiv and put Poland’s status as a major source of military equipment in doubt as a trade dispute between the neighboring states escalates.

Zelenskyy’s visit comes with U.S. and world government leaders watching as Ukrainian forces struggle to take back territory that Russia gained over the past year. Their progress in the next month or so before the rains come and the ground turns to mud could be critical to rousing additional global support over the winter. Russian President Vladimir Putin, who hopes to outlast allied backing for Kyiv, will be ready to capitalize if he sees Ukraine is running low on air defense or other weapons.

The political environment has shifted markedly since Zelenskyy addressed Congress last December on his first trip out of Ukraine since the war began. He was met with rapturous applause for his country’s bravery and surprisingly strong showing in the war.

Click to play video: 'Zelenskyy demands UN Security Council strip Russia of veto power'
Zelenskyy demands UN Security Council strip Russia of veto power

His meeting with senators on Thursday took place behind closed doors in the Old Senate Chamber, a historic and intimate place of importance at the U.S. Capitol, signifying the respect the Senate is showing the foreign leader.

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Zelenskyy received a warm welcome from both parties on his stop in the Senate. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and Majority Leader Chuck Schumer flanked him as he walked in. A few lawmakers of both parties wore clothes with blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.

Schumer told reporters afterward one sentence summed up the meeting: “Mr. Zelenskyy said if we don’t get the aid, we will lose the war.”

Senate Republican leader McConnell, who is trying to keep his party in line behind support for Ukraine, said afterward he was proud to welcome Zelenskyy to the Capitol.

“Americans’ support for Ukraine is not a charity,” he said. “It’s an investment in our own self-interest.”

Associated Press writers Seung Min Kim, Kevin Freking, Tara Copp, Lolita M. Baldor, Colleen Long, Aamer Madhani and Farnoush Amiri contributed to this report.

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