In Washington, Zelenskiy courts Congress, Biden on military aid

WASHINGTON, Sept 21 (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden assured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Thursday that strong U.S. support for his war to repel Russian invaders will be maintained despite opposition from some Republican lawmakers to sending billions more in aid.

Biden and Zelenskiy held a war council in the White House East Room as part of a blizzard of appearances the Ukraine leader made looking to bolster U.S. support for a war that began in February 2022 and has no end in sight.

“Mr. President, we’re with you, we’re staying with you,” Biden told Zelenskiy before reaching across the table and shaking his hand after two hours of talks.

Zelenskiy thanked Biden for a new $325 million military aid package of weaponry and air defenses, saying “it has exactly what our soldiers need now.”

He said he and Biden agreed on specific steps to expand the export of grain from Ukraine in the face of a Russian blockade and tensions with neighbor Poland. He did not detail the steps.

Biden’s request for $24 million in more Ukraine funding to help pay for Ukraine’s defense and humanitarian aid through the end of the year is bottled up in a budget fight pushed by Republican hardliners in the House of Representatives.

Asked how to overcome the opposition, Biden said the only way was approval by the U.S. Congress.

“I’m counting on the good judgment of the United States Congress. There’s no alternative,” he said.

Comments from Republican Senator Rand Paul, a frequent critic of foreign aid, were emblematic of the opposition. He told Fox Business News that Ukraine is a “corrupt regime” and that the war has no end in sight.

Biden said the first American Abrams tanks will be delivered to Ukraine next week.

“Just as we’re committed to helping Ukraine defend itself now, we’re also committed to helping them recover and rebuild in the future, including supporting reforms that will combat corruption,” Biden said.

AIR DEFENSE

Biden said Washington would also send Ukraine a second Raytheon-built Hawk air defense battery and related equipment. A U.S. official said the equipment would arrive in Ukraine soon.

After seeking international support at the United Nations on Wednesday, Zelenskiy came to Washington on a blitz across town that included meetings with military leaders at the Pentagon, a visit to the U.S. Capitol and an address in the evening at the National Archives museum.

In announcing a new $325 million military aid package for Ukraine, Biden lauded the bravery of the Ukrainian people when he and Zelenskiy met earlier in the Oval Office.

“Together with our partners and allies, the American people are determined to see to it to that (we do) all we can to ensure that the world stands with you,” Biden said in comments at the start of their meeting.

Zelenskiy said Ukraine greatly appreciates U.S. assistance “to combat Russian terror” and said he would discuss Ukraine’s defense needs with Biden, with a special emphasis on air defense.

“Today I’m in Washington to strengthen our ability to defend Ukrainian children, our families, our homes, freedom and democracy in the world,” he added.

While Biden and most congressional leaders still support aid to Ukraine, and Biden’s Democrats control the Senate, Zelenskiy faced a tougher crowd than when he visited Washington nine months ago.

Dressed in military green to reflect his status as a wartime leader, Zelenskiy briefed the full U.S. Senate in the Capitol’s historic Old Senate Chamber, receiving several standing ovations, according to a post on the platform X by Senator Chris Murphy.

Zelenskiy told senators that military aid was crucial to Ukraine’s war effort, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer said in the Senate chamber after the briefing, which took place behind closed doors.

“If we don’t get the aid, we will lose the war,” Schumer quoted Zelenskiy as saying.

Zelenskiy later described his meetings with lawmakers as frank and constructive.

Zelenskiy held discussions with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and other senior Pentagon leaders. He visited the Pentagon’s memorial of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks where he and his wife each placed a bouquet of sunflowers, irises and other flowers.

The White House announced the U.S. will host a conference this fall for the U.S. defense industry, Ukrainian business leaders and officials from both governments to explore joint ventures and co-production, as Washington seeks to bolster Ukraine’s long-term defense capabilities.

In their meeting, Zelenskiy shared with Biden his plans to address corruption and Biden emphasized the importance of strong anti-corruption institutions in Ukraine, the White House said.

In his speech at the National Archives, in front of a display case holding the U.S. Constitution, Zelenskiy thanked Americans for their support, saying “there is not a soul in Ukraine that does not feel gratitude to you, America.”

Zelenskiy and his wife handed out awards to doctors who treated Ukrainian soldiers and civilians, and to people who raised funds for medical equipment, ambulances and other vital supplies.

As Ukraine’s military counteroffensive grinds on and Congress stages a bitter debate over spending ahead of a possible government shutdown, a growing chorus of Republicans have questioned the billions of dollars Washington has sent Kyiv for military, economic and humanitarian needs.

The U.S. has sent some $113 billion in security and humanitarian aid to help Zelenskiy’s government since Russia invaded in February 2022.

Reporting by Andrea Shalal, Makini Brice, Phil Stewart and Patricia Zengerle; additional reporting by Andrea Shalal and Jonathan Landay; writing by Steve Holland, Patricia Zengerle and Simon Lewis; editing by Don Durfee, Heather Timmons, Alistair Bell, Grant McCool and Michael Perry

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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Makini Brice has covered U.S. Congress since 2021. Aside from Washington, she has also reported in Senegal, Haiti and France. She was part of a team of journalists who detailed lawmakers’ ancestors’ ties to slavery.

Phil Stewart has reported from more than 60 countries, including Afghanistan, Ukraine, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Russia, Saudi Arabia, China and South Sudan. An award-winning Washington-based national security reporter, Phil has appeared on NPR, PBS NewsHour, Fox News and other programs and moderated national security events, including at the Reagan National Defense Forum and the German Marshall Fund. He is a recipient of the Edwin M. Hood Award for Diplomatic Correspondence and the Joe Galloway Award.

source: reuters.com