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  1. The Staggers
21 December 2022

Zelensky needed to go to Washington

With the war soon to enter its second year, Ukraine still needs all the Western support it can get.

By Ido Vock

Exactly 300 days since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky is making his first trip out of the country he is president of. He will meet with the US president Joe Biden in Washington DC today (21 December), then address a joint session of Congress.

“The visit will underscore the United States’s steadfast commitment to supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes, including through the provision of economic, humanitarian, and military assistance,” said the White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in a statement that announced the visit. Jean-Pierre added that a “significant” package of aid from the US would be announced during the visit.

The new $2bn package will include Patriot surface-to-air missile systems, intended to help Ukraine defend against Russian drone and missile attacks. Delivery of this system is a major win for Kyiv, which has requested more advanced air defence technology for months.

It is surely no surprise that Zelensky chose to visit the US rather than another ally for his first trip abroad. No other country’s aid and political support to Ukraine comes close to matching that offered by Washington. The EU’s total commitments recently surpassed those of the US, at a total of €52bn compared with €48bn, according to data from the Kiel Institute for the World Economy. European support is overwhelmingly financial, however, while US support includes a much larger share of military equipment.

That backing is likely to increase significantly in the coming days. US lawmakers will vote this week on a $1.7trn spending bill that includes a further $45bn in aid to Ukraine next year. If the package is approved, American support to Ukraine would total almost $100bn, far outstripping any other country.

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Nonetheless, despite the strength of the alliance between both countries, the visit will not be tension free. Zelensky has urged Biden to send Ukraine longer-range weaponry, such as Army Tactical Missile Systems. That would allow Ukrainian forces to hit targets inside Russia proper, which Kyiv argues is essential to keep liberating territory from Russian control and forestall a potential counterattack. But the Biden administration has so far refused the requests, arguing that delivery of such weapons systems risks the war escalating, according to Politico.

Divisions in US domestic politics over Ukraine may increase as the invasion approaches its first anniversary on 24 February 2023. The Ukrainian president’s address to Congress will be one of the last acts of the current Democratic-controlled House of Representatives, before a Republican-controlled one begins its term early next year.

Although Ukraine has wide backing across both parties, some far-right Republicans have indicated their opposition to sending aid to Ukraine. JD Vance, a senator-elect from Ohio, has said that the US will need to “stop the money spigot to Ukraine eventually”. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a far-right representative from Georgia, has said “not one more penny” of American money should go to Ukraine.

The Republican Party failed to take the Senate in November’s midterm elections, but far-right factions of the party may use the party’s slim majority to pressure the Biden administration on aid to Ukraine. Kevin McCarthy, likely the next speaker of the House, appeared to appeal to the far-right wing in October by saying that support for Ukraine should be not be a “blank cheque”.

And while Zelensky has largely refused the prospect of negotiations with the Russian president Vladimir Putin, American officials such as the national security adviser Jake Sullivan have in recent months reportedly begun pressuring Ukraine to accept the principle that there may have to be discussions to end the war eventually.

In Washington, Biden and Zelensky will be keen to highlight the alliance between their countries. But with the war soon to enter its second year, the handshakes and smiles may not be able to mask every divergence.

[See also: Europe’s winter of discontent]

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