President Volodymyr Zelensky can expect a warm welcome from President Biden when he arrives Thursday in Washington to make the case for continued U.S. support for Ukraine.
Republicans in Congress may be a tougher sell, however.
Zelensky is making the quick side trip to Washington, following his appearance at the U.N. General Assembly in New York, to urge lawmakers in Congress to approve additional assistance for Ukraine as part of a spending deal that would avert a government shutdown at the end of the month.
“The aim is to move the needle” by winning over Ukraine skeptics in Congress and addressing concerns lawmakers may have about Kyiv’s progress on the battlefield, said Andrew D’Anieri, a resident fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center.
“Zelensky can allay some of those concerns and make a strong case for why [additional military aid] would allow Ukraine to continue the fight,” D’Anieri told Newsweek.
The White House has asked Congress to approve $24 billion in new aid to Ukraine as part of a short-term spending package to keep the federal government funded past September 30. The Biden administration has sent Kyiv more than $40 billion in military assistance since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.
A group of conservative and moderate House Republicans countered the White House plan last Sunday with a one-month spending bill that did not include new aid for Kyiv.
House Republicans were split on the bill, and a vote on the measure was scrapped earlier this week. It’s widely believed in Washington that Congress will ultimately approve more funding for Ukraine, though it’s an open question what the final amount will be.
Still, the opposing plans set up a clash between House Republicans and the White House and Democrats in Congress, raising the prospect that Ukraine might become a major sticking point in shutdown negotiations. Failure to reach a deal would result in the third government shutdown in five years.
Democrats have blasted Republicans this week for not wanting to do more to help Ukraine. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer panned the Republican proposal Monday, saying he could not think of a “worse welcome” for Zelensky.
The No. 2 Senate Democrat, Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, argued that backing Ukraine was part of a broader effort to counter Russian aggression in Europe.
“Ukraine is fighting with the lives of its people against a nuclear state that threatens the world,” Durbin said in remarks on the Senate floor. “If Ukraine falls, [Russian President Vladimir] Putin will certainly go further, to the Baltic States, to Poland, and trigger an even wider war.”
Concern over Putin’s ambitions in Europe drove lawmakers from both parties to unquestioningly back Ukraine at the start of the war. Public polls show most Americans are also behind Ukraine, though support among Republicans has softened over time.
But a growing number of Republican officials in recent months have balked at calls for backing Ukraine for “as long as it takes,” the phrase Biden often uses to describe America’s unwavering commitment to Kyiv.
On the 2024 campaign trail, former President Donald Trump—the frontrunner for the GOP presidential nomination—Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, and others have questioned the United States’ involvement in the conflict. In Congress, dozens of Republicans have voted this year to reduce or altogether end military aid to Ukraine.
Ahead of Zelensky’s visit to Washington, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said he would have “questions” for the Ukrainian leader about how American aid was being spent.
“Where’s the accountability on the money we already spent?” McCarthy told reporters he would ask Zelensky. McCarthy said he would also ask Zelensky to explain Ukraine’s “plan for victory.”
For Zelensky, the growing skepticism he’ll encounter Thursday from Republicans represents a marked change from last December, when he made his first trip as president to the U.S. Then, his speech to a joint session of Congress was met with overwhelming support.
Nine months later the atmosphere in Washington will be different, reflecting rising tensions as both parties prepare for a divisive election season.
The growing opposition among Republicans to Biden’s Ukraine policy reflects a shift from past eras of bipartisan agreement on countering Russia, said Michael David-Fox, the director of the Center for Eurasian, Russian, and East European Studies at Georgetown University.
“During the Cold War, that bipartisan consensus against the Soviet Union held pretty firmly,” David-Fox told Newsweek. Now, “there’s no question that that Cold War consensus [on Russia] is a thing of the past.”