If anyone in the world—Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping, European leaders, the American public—thought that the new Congress might slash support for Ukraine, out of war-fatigue or penny-pinching or MAGA isolationism, Volodymyr Zelensky’s speech in the House chamber Wednesday night should have convinced them otherwise.
That was the main purpose of Zelensky’s trip to Washington—his first trip anywhere outside Ukraine since the Russian invasion 300 days ago. And it was a resounding success. Members of the House and Senate, called to a joint session just the day before, greeted him with cheers as he entered, cheered more as he stood on the dais, and cheered his speech with standing ovations more than a dozen times.
The Ukrainian president, who read his address in sometimes-halting English, knew all the right buttons to push. He thanked everyone—President Biden, Republicans and Democrats in the House and the Senate, and “every American family.” He hailed the Ukrainian army’s triumphs as “our joint victory”—the result of “Ukrainian courage and American resolve”—and likened his soldiers to the American troops who fought against Hitler at the Battle of the Bulge and the revolutionaries who fought the British at Saratoga.
It was a continuation of the approach he trotted out, with great success, in a virtual speech to Congress last March, three weeks after Putin’s invasion. Before then, Zelensky, still a novice on the global stage, tried to shame Western leaders for not joining the battle directly, specifically for not imposing a no-fly zone in Ukrainian airspace. In the March speech, he offered a different proposal—send us anti-air weapons and we’ll shoot down the Russian planes. He also thanked the lawmakers and the American people profusely for the aid they’d sent already.
Wednesday night, standing before the members of Congress in person, clearly moved by their prolonged applause (“It is too much for me … it’s a great honor,” he said at the start of his speech), he poured on the gratitude repeatedly.
The cheers came from lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, all but unanimously. Only a handful of well-known Trump followers—Lauren Boebert, Matt Gaetz, and Marjorie Taylor Greene—did not applaud. The first two smirked when Zelensky called for American unity.
It was skeptics like them that probably spurred Zelensky to come to the Capitol and make his appeal directly. He knew that the Republicans had regained the House in the midterm elections and that some of them—not just those who smirked at his speech but also the likely incoming House speaker, Kevin McCarthy—weren’t so keen on sending seemingly endless boatloads of money and weapons to a war that has gone on for much longer than anyone had expected.
To the skeptics, both in Congress and in economically stressed households across the country, Zelensky stressed that American aid to Ukraine was “not charity” but rather “an investment in global security and democracy.” He pledged never to ask any American soldier to fight on Ukrainian soil, saying his troops “can properly operate American tanks and planes themselves.”
But he also came to Washington to ask, openly, for more. “We have artillery, yes, thank you,” he said, adding, “Is it enough? Honestly, not really.” For his army to go on the offensive and push the Russians completely out of Ukraine, more would be needed.
Earlier in the day, in a two-hour meeting in the White House, President Biden took up that request, noting that the spending bill—which Congress just passed—provides Ukraine with $45 billion in various forms of aid. Biden also announced that he was adding $1.8 billion in military assistance—on top of the $23 billion worth of arms that the U.S. has given Ukraine since the invasion.
The prominent item in the list of new weapons was a battery of Patriot air-defense missiles, which are far more effective than the weapons previously supplied for shooting down cruise missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, and high-flying airplanes—with which Russia has lately been attacking Ukrainian cities and power stations, leaving many cities without electricity, heat, or running water.
Except for the one line in his speech (“Is it enough? Honestly, not really”), which he spoke in a slightly self-deprecating tone, perhaps knowing that anger or pressure would backfire, Zelensky didn’t complain about any shortfalls in U.S. aid. But clearly he knew—and Biden did as well—that even the massive outflow of American weapons has left the Ukrainians less than fully capable.
The supply of Patriot air-defense weapons, after much hesitation, is not as bountiful as it may seem. Biden said at the press conference that he is sending a single Patriot battery—equipped with four missiles—so that Ukrainian units can be trained in how to use them. A knowledgeable source told me Wednesday night that the training would take place at a U.S. base in Germany where Patriots are already deployed and that, even with an accelerated program, the training would take “several weeks.” After that, Biden and his aides will decide—they haven’t just yet—how many Patriots the U.S. will supply. They are also prodding NATO allies to pay for some of the missiles, which cost $1 million each.
A Ukrainian journalist asked Biden at the end of the news conference whether he could just send all the weapons he was thinking of sending in one massive shipment now. Biden replied, looking at Zelensky, “His answer is yes.” Zelensky chuckled and said, “I agree.” Biden then listed several of the weapons he has sent Ukraine, noted that he has spent “hundreds of hours” talking with NATO allies about supplying four kinds of arms (artillery, air defense, armor, and ammunition), and then made his point: Western aid to Ukraine is an alliance effort. The allies have to agree on what types of weapons to send.
Some weapons—notably American ATACMs missiles, which have the range to strike targets deep inside Russia—seem to some allies like a provocation. (Ukrainians have struck two air bases inside Russia with their own weapons; some Western officials believe doing so with NATO weapons might provoke Putin into attacking NATO countries, though others doubt that theory.) The allies, Biden said, understand the nature of the conflict and the nature of Putin, ”but they’re not looking to go to war with Russia” themselves; “they don’t want to start World War III”—a sentiment that Biden himself has uttered several times.
NATO is as united as it has been in decades, but there still are some divisions. Similarly, the American Congress and public are more supportive of Ukraine than anyone might have imagined after nearly a year of war—but there are still differences in degree of support too, especially between Democrats and Republicans.
In his speech, Zelensky said, “Next year will be a turning point.” Maybe. But unless Putin is ousted or crumbles, the war is likely to go on for a while longer.