As his nation tries to withstand a Russian onslaught, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is expected to use his Wednesday address to Congress to beseech Washington to do more to help — and may turn up the pressure uncomfortably high on President Joe Biden.
Biden has deployed weapons and equipment to Ukraine, rallied European allies to support Kyiv and has spearheaded an array of sanctions on Moscow to punish Russia’s Vladimir Putin for his aggression. But Biden has been unwilling to provide some of the exact things that Zelenskyy wants — like a no-fly zone, advanced missile systems and fighter jets — creating tension between a cautious U.S. president and a Ukrainian leader desperate for more superpower help.
“Zelenskyy is really good at articulating what’s at stake, that this is a battle for not just for sovereignty for Ukraine but for the world,” said Evelyn Farkas, former deputy assistant secretary of defense for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia. “He’s made this a ‘we’ situation, not ‘they.’ He’s made this about ‘us’ and he is showing the world that the Ukrainian spirit won’t be snuffed out and is worth saving.”
Zelenskyy has repeatedly and emotionally called for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone over Ukraine, which Biden has steadfastly refused to do for fear that any possible confrontation between American and Russian planes or troops could escalate into a much larger conflict and potentially world war.
Biden also nixed a move for Poland to transfer aging jets through the United States to Ukraine, for fear that it could escalate the conflict.
If Zelenskyy’s address to Congress is as passionate as his other public appearances lately, Biden may come under increased pressure from lawmakers pushing for more Ukrainian aid. White House officials stressed that Biden and Zelenskyy get along well and their interests are aligned. The two presidents have spoken several times since the invasion and have repeatedly saluted the other’s efforts.
But the two men are also a study in contrasts.
Zelenskyy has defiantly remained in Kyiv, taking to wearing combat T-shirts and hoodies as he walks the streets of the Ukrainian capital and has vowed to never leave his home country. Armed with a cell phone camera, he has rallied Ukrainians and the world alike with his inspirational messages, at times almost taunting Putin with in-your-face displays of his very survival.
Biden, meanwhile, has taken a far more cautious approach. He has drawn clear lines that he has said he will not cross, such as putting American soldiers on the ground in Ukraine, while making clear to Putin that the U.S. will defend every inch of NATO territory. That approach has drawn some recent criticism, with some believing that it could embolden the Russian president, but White House aides have said that laying down the markers was a means to exhort allies to help with everything they can while also being reassured that the U.S. would not provoke the conflict further into Europe.
Zelenskyy emotionally addressed the Canadian Parliament on Tuesday and urged lawmakers there to imagine if Toronto was attacked like Kyiv has been.
“But also I would like you to understand — and I would like you to feel this — what we feel every day. We want to live, and we want to be victorious,” the Ukrainian president said.
In what felt like a prebuttal to Zelenskyy’s next appeal, White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday underscored that the United States had already sent $300 million in military aid to Ukraine.
“One of the reasons they’re able to push back is because of the significant amount of military assistance we have provided,” said Psaki as she praised the Ukrainian resistance.
Short of a few non-starters, the White House has tried to empty its toolkit to help Kyiv, sending supplies, levying sanctions and banning the import of Russian oil. And embracing the symbolism of a unified West, the White House will send Biden to Europe perhaps as soon as next week. Aides are planning an appearance at an emergency NATO summit in Brussels, though it was unclear if other stops would be added.
Top Biden deputies are in close touch with their Ukrainian counterparts as the conflict has deepened. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks regularly with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, including a call Tuesday. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Andriy Yermak, a senior aide to Zelenskyy, are in daily contact, a spokesperson for the National Security Council confirmed.
Privately, Biden administration officials acknowledge they have noticed the pressure brought on by Zelenskyy’s demands for more assistance, but they don’t begrudge him.
“Of course, he’s pushing us — his country has been invaded,” one senior administration official said.
But there are limits to how much Biden can do to alter the course of the war as Russian forces continued their slow, grueling advances in Ukraine.
“I don’t see the ability to change the fundamental trajectory, though we can give Ukraine greater means to defend itself and could begin to prepare for the potential next phase of the war, a long Russian invasion and occupation,” said Richard Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Administration officials also stressed that the equipment the U.S. has already sent, including anti-missile defense systems, has helped Ukraine hold off Russia and that some of Kyiv’s other requests, such as fighter jets, would not make much of a difference.
Psaki said Biden would likely watch Zelenskyy’s speech. White House aides have not said whether Biden would react publicly to the address but Haass said that the key in the coming days would be for Washington and Kyiv to “make sure that they are on same page for diplomatic demands” in future negotiations with Russia.
But many in Congress — including lawmakers from both sides of the aisle — have urged more help, including sending the Polish MiG jets to Ukraine.
“Enough talk. People are dying,” said Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) this week. “Send them the planes that they need. They say they need MiGs. … They want MiGs. Get them the MiGs.”
Around 300 lawmakers joined a Zoom call with Zelenskyy earlier this month in which the Ukrainian leader outlined his urgent needs from the West — many of which have already been delivered, including $14 billion in military and humanitarian aid.
Biden has used the crisis to drive home the idea that the United States was reclaiming its mantle as the leader of the free world, and has framed this as a battle between democracies and autocracies.
During the Obama administration, Biden, vice president at the time, took the lead on the Ukraine file after Putin first invaded the country in 2014. Biden’s interest in assisting Ukraine on the security front hasn’t let up since he became president, even if Zelenskyy would like to see more.
But Biden also has urged Ukrainian leaders to tackle corruption and other domestic woes, leading to some friction between Washington and Kyiv.
Early on in the Biden presidency, his administration imposed a visa ban on Ihor Kolomoyskyy, a Ukrainian business tycoon whom the Biden team had been urging Zelenskyy to prosecute. Ukraine watchers suspected that Zelenskyy was hesitant to go after Kolomoyskyy in part because the mogul owned a media outlet that had given Zelenskyy good coverage.
The Biden team also has worried about Ukraine’s internal political feuds and the instability that could cause. Prosecutors in Zelenskyy’s government, for instance, were pursuing former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko on charges of treason and supporting terrorism.
Zelenskyy, a former comedian, defeated Poroshenko, a billionaire candy tycoon, for the presidency. In 2019, then-President Donald Trump threatened Zelenskyy with withholding military aid to Ukraine unless he investigated Biden’s dealings in that country.
Trump was later impeached over the matter, though he was not convicted.
Nahal Toosi contributed to this story.
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