What Zelenskyy worried about when he addressed a cheering Congress

Trudy Rubin
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

The scene couldn’t have been more dramatic.

Ten months after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, when Western experts expected Kyiv to fall in three days, Volodymyr Zelenskyy stood in his trademark military sweatshirt before a joint session of Congress Wednesday night. “Against all odds and doom-and-gloom scenarios,” he proclaimed, “Ukraine didn’t fall. Ukraine is alive and kicking.”

Like Winston Churchill, who made a historic address to Congress in December 1941, asking for help to battle Adolf Hitler, the Ukrainian president traveled from the front lines to Washington, to convince U.S. leaders that their backing could enable Kyiv to defeat a dangerous tyrant. A tyrant who threatens the democratic West.

Yet, unlike Churchill, the Ukrainian leader insisted that Kyiv didn’t need U.S. troops, but only weapons for its fighters to defeat Vladimir Putin.

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addresses the U.S. Congress flanked by Vice President Kamala Harris (left) and U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022. (Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

The audience cheered wildly and some even wept (though many GOP legislators were AWOL and some of the MAGA crowd kept their hands in their pockets). Most legislators knew they were in the presence of a true hero, a leader who delivered nightly messages to his people and presented medals in person to his troops. Unlike Putin, who makes remote speeches and rewards corrupt cronies.

Yet, despite the fervent applause, despite the effusive welcome by President Joe Biden and his commitment to continue aid, there was a worried undertone to Zelenskyy’s speech.

The Ukrainian leader was clearly concerned that, despite Biden’s words, the U.S. wouldn’t give Kyiv the weapons systems it most needs, and swiftly enough to save his country. “Your support is crucial,” he told Congress, “not just to stand in such a fight, but to get to the turning point on the battlefield.”

As Putin decimates Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure, Zelenskyy would clearly like that “turning point” to come soon, before Moscow sends tens of thousands more recruits onto the battlefield in 2023.

Part of Zelenskyy’s problem is uncertainty about the impact of GOP control of the House of Representatives, where a growing number of Republicans are skeptical about giving more aid to Ukraine. Although Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell warmly welcomed the Ukrainian president, it’s not clear how many of his flock share his views.

MAGA isolationists show zero comprehension that Putin’s aggression and nuclear saber-rattling present a danger that goes far beyond Ukraine, potentially threatening our NATO allies and the United States. The crudest and dumbest version of MAGA thinking was Donald Trump Jr.’s Tuesday tweet, calling Zelenskyy an “ungrateful international welfare queen” for requesting more weapons from the White House.

To the contrary, Zelenskyy was spot on when he told Congress: “Your money is not charity. It’s an investment in global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.”

Biden clearly agreed, as he repeatedly made clear at a news conference with Zelenskyy earlier that day, pledging to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes.” He deserves full credit for including $45 billion in Ukraine aid in the omnibus spending bill making its way through Congress — and, hopefully, getting this long range funding through before the GOP-led House takes over.

And two cheers for the belated White House decision to approve one Patriot missile defense battery to protect against Russian ballistic missiles.

Yet — and this clearly was making Zelenskyy nervous — the White House always seems several steps behind the curve when it comes to giving Ukraine the weapons systems it needs when it needs them most.

For example, Ukrainians have been asking for Patriots since the war began to help protect city skies, but the White House refused lest it cause “escalation.” Now, that delivery has finally been promised, but only one battery will arrive, and not before February.

A single Patriot battery can protect only a part of a city, and is meant mainly to target ballistic missiles. Yet Iran, which has delivered hundreds of deadly drones to Russia to use against Ukraine, may soon be sending Moscow more of such missiles.

No wonder Zelenskyy said frankly at the news conference: “We would like to get more Patriots. We are in a war.” He wasn’t being greedy, but was trying to preempt a future Russian attempt to destroy Kyiv, possibly with Iranian weapons.

“One terrorist has found the other,” he noted about Tehran’s tightening relationship with Moscow. You’d think that was a message that GOP legislators could understand.

And when the Ukrainian leader told Congress: “We have artillery, yes. Thank you. Is it enough? Honestly, not really,” he is not just a typical military commander who always wants more. He is a courageous leader waging an existential battle.

He needs more cannons and shells, along with tanks and planes, as soon as possible, to defeat the Russian army at the ongoing battle of Bakhmut in the Donbas. That could clear the way for a critical counteroffensive southward to cut Russia’s land bridge to Crimea.

Equally key, when Zelenskyy has asked for long range missiles, known as ATACMS, to preempt Russia from further destroying urban heating and electrical systems, he’s been trying to help Ukrainians survive the winter. If the administration fears such missiles could cause Russian “escalation,” it could make a deal with Kyiv that ATACMS would only be fired at Russian missile bases in occupied territory, including Crimea, but not inside Russia proper.

I felt total sympathy for the Ukrainian journalist who plaintively asked at the news conference: “Can we make a long story short and give Ukraine all capabilities it needs and liberate all territories sooner rather than later?”

Biden responded that such a move might upset nervous NATO allies who “are not looking for a third World War.” But the longer this war drags on, the riskier it becomes. And if the West falters before Putin, his threats will only become more frequent.

“You can speed up our victory,” Zelenskyy urged Congress.

Just as Churchill’s courage, backed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s help, defeated German fascists, a victory for Ukraine against the Ruscists (as Ukraine calls Putin’s circle) would also be ours.

— Trudy Rubin is a columnist and editorial-board member for the The Philadelphia Inquirer.