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Zelensky’s mixed reception in Washington may be a taste of political storm to come

Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN

Washington (CNN) — The blue-and-gold flag draped hero worship of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s last Washington trip, which stirred comparisons to Winston Churchill’s wartime stand against Nazism, was a distant memory on Thursday.

Nine months later, Zelensky was back in town and he and his hosts learned some jarring lessons about one another at a moment when a path to ultimate victory in the war against Russia seems increasingly distant.

Zelensky got an abrupt preview of how Donald Trump’s possible return to power after the 2024 election and how the ex-president’s current sway over the ungovernable Republican-led House of Representatives could rupture the multi-billion dollar lifeline on which Ukraine’s survival depends. And far from clearing a new $24 billion administration request to sustain Ukraine’s war effort, the chaotic House failed again Thursday to even fund the defense of the United States, as a new attempt to pass a military appropriations bill foundered against hard-right opposition.

For their part, Americans glimpsed the sapping impact of a brutal war on a leader who rallied stunning resistance to a Russian invasion but also shoulders the burden of months of death and sacrifice forced upon his people. At times, the comic actor turned wartime hero looked exhausted and unsmiling. In a CNN interview, he confessed the personal strain of his furtive life as Russia’s top target.

And in public appearances, Zelensky’s patience sometimes frayed – especially when berating the United Nations for failing to protect its members from aggression. In a US capital that has undergone an ideological shift since he was last here just before Christmas 2022, it now takes more than quoting President Franklin Roosevelt and drawing allusions to 9/11, to woo lawmakers.

There’s also a question of whether Zelensky’s relentless efforts to shame the world into action might be reaching the point of diminishing returns. The pugnacious president might think so too judging by his multiple and poignant expressions of gratitude for previous help as polls show more Americans are skeptical of aid to Ukraine. He may need to develop new political skills to adapt to a vicious phase in American politics when Ukraine is being dragged into an impeachment saga for the second time and is a central general election issue.

Zelensky’s trip to the United States – whose democracy, while battered, is still a bulwark of free political systems around the world – was a mirror image of another journey made by Russian President Vladimir Putin last week to restock his own arsenal in a meeting with North Korean tyrant Kim Jong Un in Russia’s Far East.

A warm welcome in the Oval Office

Biden did his best to assure Zelensky of US constancy.

“Mr. President, the brave people in Ukraine, and that’s not hyperbole, the people of Ukraine have shown an enormous bravery, enormous bravery,” Biden told Zelensky in the Oval Office. “Together with our partners and allies, the American people are determined to see to all we can to ensure the world stands with you.”

Zelensky profusely thanked Biden for America’s support to “combat Russian terrorism.” And he also thanked the people of Poland after the government in Warsaw said it would stop arming Ukraine after a dispute over Ukrainian grain imports. Analysts in the US and Ukraine said the move was bound up in political tensions ahead of Poland’s approaching election, and probably didn’t augur a long-term rupture between the allies.

Biden unveiled yet another US aid package for Ukraine worth $325 million that was expected to include more cluster munitions and air defense equipment, according to two US officials, marking the second time the US has provided the controversial weapon to Kyiv.

But there was also disappointment for Ukraine as national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that the US will not be providing long-range Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) – at least for now. The decision is the latest sign of the limitations of help even from Biden, who has led the Western alliance more effectively than any other US president since the end of the Cold War.

The president has constantly sought to balance US weapons offers against his underlying aim of avoiding a clash between NATO and nuclear superpower Russia, sparking a wider war. His hawkish critics however accuse him of slow walking weapons systems he eventually decides to provide, and of offering Ukraine only the means to ensure its survival but not to inflict a comprehensive defeat on Russia.

Zelensky can return to Kyiv – which endured a fearsome Russian barrage overnight timed to coincide with his US visit – reassured that there is, at least for now, majority support in Congress for Ukraine’s resistance.

Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Republican Minority Leader Mitch McConnell flanked him as he walked into a meeting with senators. The bipartisan meeting included an update on the war and Zelensky’s efforts to fight corruption – one reason some Capitol Hill skeptics cite for cooling on massive aid grants. Zelensky’s GOP backers in the Senate endorsed his efforts.

“We do know that Ukraine had problems with corruption … but we’re also seeing parliament is taking that seriously,” North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis, a member of the GOP leadership, said after the meeting.

In December 2022, Democratic Vice President Kamala Harris and Democratic then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi unfurled a giant Ukrainian flag behind a clearly moved Ukrainian president after he addressed a joint session of Congress.

On Friday, Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy however failed even to emulate his Senate colleague McConnell by appearing publicly with Zelensky – though he did have his picture taken with him in a closed-door meeting, and Zelensky later told a small group of US editors, including from CNN, that McCarthy “said that they will be on our side – it’s not simple – that they will support.”

The speaker, who is locked in a showdown with his most extreme conservative members that could shut down the government next week, explained that the chamber didn’t “have time” for a joint session with the Senate to hear a speech from Zelensky. And he refused to commit to holding a vote on the $24 billion package for Ukraine and complained that Biden should be more concerned over immigration on the Southern border.

“Look, we’ve got to get our fiscal house taken care of here in America. I’m more than willing to look at that. But the one thing I know is that if the president’s only focused on that, well, you’ve just had 10,000 people come across the border, and he wants to ignore that,” McCarthy said. “I think there are priorities here.”

Republican hostility on Ukraine aid

McCarthy leads a conference that includes many pro-Trump members who are mirroring the ex-president’s hostility to sending more aid to Ukraine. Trump has vowed to end the war within 24 hours if he is the Republican nominee and wins the 2024 presidential election – a pledge likely to prove favorable to Putin, whom he has often tried to impress.

Support for Ukraine has also drawn a fault line across the 2024 GOP primary race. Former US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, for example, pushed back against criticism of support for Ukraine made in a campaign event in New Hampshire.

“You had a thug invade a pro-American freedom loving country,” she said.

But Vivek Ramaswamy, a rising Republican candidate more in tune with the populist nationalism that pulses through the modern GOP, said he wouldn’t “mince words” with Zelensky and said he’d rebuke him on corruption, limits on free speech and religious freedom.

The divides underscore the Republican Party’s struggle for its own soul, between traditional conservatives and foreign policy hawks who back global democracy and the isolationist “America First” approach that saw Trump cozy up to dictators like Putin while lambasting the Western alliance that Biden has reinvigorated to meet a new challenge from Moscow.

There is also personal antipathy from some Trump acolytes to Zelensky, who was on the other end of the line in the phone call that led to Trump’s first impeachment over an attempt to coerce his government to investigate Biden. Remarkably, Ukraine is now at the center of another impeachment drama as Republicans investigate Biden over so far unproven claims he benefited financially from his son Hunter’s business activities in the country.

Pro-Trump senators also rejected Zelensky’s pleas. Ohio Sen. J.D. Vance skipped the all-Senate meeting with Zelensky – and then used his characteristic olive-green military garb as a punchline in a debate over Schumer’s decision not to enforce formal dress conventions.

“Letting someone in the Senate chamber dressed like this really crosses the line,” Vance wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter, along with a picture of Zelensky who actually did not address senators in the chamber but in the smaller, old Senate chamber that is often used for ceremonial events.

Another senator from the pro-Trump wing of the GOP, Missouri Sen. Josh Hawley, described Zelensky as grateful and respectful. But he complained the Biden team had established no clear goal for winning the war.

“They don’t know. They just want more money indefinitely,” Hawley said.

His comment underscores a sentiment often echoed by Republican voters that the US has thrown itself into an open-ended conflict – even if its troops are not involved. Trump exacerbates such concerns by warning that Biden’s help for Ukraine could trigger World War III with Russia.

Skepticism about the administration’s policy has also been fueled by the failure of Ukraine’s long-awaited counter-offensive to break the back of Russia’s invasion through territory that has been heavily mined.

Any hopes of a long-term peace deal are meanwhile undercut by Ukraine’s determination to recover lost territory and Russia’s history of ignoring ceasefires in the region. Putin also has incentives for keeping the war going: It is critical to his prestige and desire to recreate a greater Russia sphere of influence. He may also wait to see whether a power shift in the White House could see a returning President Trump keen to end the war on Russia’s terms.

That all means Biden’s assurances to stick with Zelensky for “as long as it takes” may not be as iron clad as they once seemed. With no end in sight for the biggest war in Europe since World War II, Ukraine’s fate seems increasingly aligned with Biden’s own political destiny.

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