Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, touched down in Washington this evening, his first foreign trip since Russia launched its invasion in February, in a bid to plead for more US weapons.
“On my way to the US to strengthen resilience and defense capabilities of Ukraine,” said Zelensky as he set off.
Zelensky arrived at the White House’s South Lawn just after 7pm UK time, where he was met by President Joe Biden. Given the security risks involved, the exact details of his trip have not been made public. He is due to give a speech to Congress and will conduct extended talks with Biden.
In anticipation of Zelensky’s visit, the White House announced a new package of nearly $2bn of security assistance for Ukraine and confirmed it will supply Kyiv with a Patriot missile system – a sophisticated air defence system that will help Ukraine protect its cities from Russian drones that have targeted key infrastructure, leaving millions without electricity and heating.
It’s hardly surprising that America is top of Zelenksy’s travel list. While unwavering British solidarity has made Boris Johnson a highly popular figure in Kyiv, the extent to which Ukraine depends on the US for support is incomparable to any other nation.
The US has brought its total commitments in military, financial and humanitarian aid to Kyiv to over €52 bn, while EU countries have collectively reached just over €29bn.
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This degree of support from Washington has created some tensions – and resentment among some US officials that European countries aren’t pulling their weight. For instance, the German Ambassador to the US, Emily Haber, has warned her government that Berlin is increasingly viewed in Washington as a pacifist free-rider on the US security order.
This resentment cuts both ways. Both France and Germany have accused Washington of using solidarity for Ukraine as an opportunity to turn a profit.
In October, German Economy Minister, Robert Habeck criticised the US for exporting the energy crisis by pressuring European countries to divert from Russian gas while charging “astronomical prices” for its replacement homegrown gas. Similarly, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire has said it is unacceptable that the US is exporting LNG at prices four times higher than those paid by its domestic companies.
Europe aside, the extent of US support – and funding – for Kyiv has created domestic tensions too. A Wall Street Journal poll released in early November identified a sharp decline in Republican voter support for Ukraine aid, with 48 per cent saying the US is doing too much to help Kyiv. Especially on the hard-right, many feel their government should focus instead on domestic spending, for instance, in southern border security. Indeed, ahead of the US midterms, Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green declared that “not another cent” would be sent to Ukraine if her party controlled the legislature.
With all these factors at play, should we be worried about Washington’s capacity to keep on funding the war so generously?
Certainly, if the US midterms had resulted in the Republicans winning a big majority in Congress, this could have derailed defence funding for Kyiv. Yet, fortunately for Zelensky, they performed weaker-than-expected, securing a narrow majority in the House and failing to gain control of the Senate.
So for now, a row-back on aid is not on the cards. On the contrary, Washington is committed to supporting Ukraine for “as long as it takes”, Biden has said repeatedly.
That said, if the US recession does really start to bite in 2023, more questions may start to be raised about whether it’s right for the US to continue providing such a heavy proportion of foreign military aid.
So a visit to Washington to charm Biden in person – and secure some firm long-term commitments – is a smart move from Zelensky.
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