Gifts for President Zelensky — and a boost for Ukrainian troops
On the 300th day of the conflict in Ukraine, President Zelensky will be feted as a war hero in Washington. He will arrive as the man who has stood up to President Putin and refused to be defeated in the face of Moscow’s invasion. But it is what he will leave with that is of more consequence to the Ukrainian president
On the 300th day of the conflict in Ukraine, President Zelensky will be feted as a war hero in Washington.
He will arrive as the man who has stood up to President Putin and refused to be defeated in the face of Moscow’s invasion. But it is what he will leave with that is of more consequence to the Ukrainian president.
The visit is symbolically important and designed to show that as winter bites in Europe and some countries’ steadfast support for Kyiv begins to soften in the face of high energy bills, the Americans still have Zelensky’s back.
This will come in the form of a huge new package of military support, totalling about $46 billion. When it is considered that in the first ten months of the war, the US has spent about $23 billion supercharging the Ukrainian military, according to the Kiel Institute, the new package of support is a dramatic upping of the ante by the Americans.
Most significant is Washington’s agreement to supply the Patriot missile defence system to Kyiv. It will give the Ukrainians the ability to shoot down Russian long-range missiles more effectively and at greater distance, protecting some of the critical infrastructure that has been pounded by the Russians in recent months.
It is a system on a different scale from other air-defence weapons already provided by the US and other Nato nations. The only negative issue is that it will take weeks if not months for the Ukrainian military to learn how to fire them in combat. Training will take place at a US base in Germany.
If Zelensky’s principal aim was to leave Washington armed to the teeth with new weapons, it is mission accomplished but the visit has other purposes too, not least from the American perspective.
Next month the House of Representatives will come under the control of the Republicans. Some on the right of the party have questioned what they call the White House’s “blank cheque” approach to Ukraine, and argued that the money going to Kyiv should be spent on domestic issues, or better still, handed back to taxpayers. Securing the new funding now removes the risk of it being rejected by a more hostile Congress.
It will also show some of the left of President Biden’s own Democratic party that there will be no wavering in the White House. On October, 30 members of the Democrats’ “progressive caucus” in the House, largely those of the left, signed a letter saying it was time to start negotiating with Russia. A few hours later, the letter was withdrawn and its release blamed on a junior member of staff.
The American public will also be left in no doubt that the Biden administration is four-square behind Zelensky and his country.
Although Americans are still largely in favour of assisting Ukraine, support is beginning to wane. A recent poll by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs found that 48 percent of of people said that the US should support Ukraine “for as long as it takes, even if American households have to pay higher gas and food prices as a consequence”. That figure represents a ten point drop from July, when 58 per cent were in favour of supporting Ukraine for as long as necessary.
For Biden, too, the visit of Zelensky has benefits. His approval ratings still have not recovered from the deaths of 13 US soldiers and marines last year when the US, at the White House’s prompting, hastily withdrew from Afghanistan.
In Ukraine, it is American treasure, not blood, that is being spent and even though the US president is one of the western leaders not to visit Zelensky in Kyiv since the start of the fighting, he can project himself as a leader in what has become the biggest conventional conflict in Europe since the Second World War.
Zelensky’s trip to Washington is his first since President Putin ordered tanks into Ukraine in February. It is the first time he has left Ukraine since the invasion. However, he has often visited Ukrainian frontline troops, including a risky trip this week to Bakhmut, the scene of some of the war’s bloodiest battles.
He will return to Kyiv after his visits to the front line having galvanised his fighters. He will return from Washington with the weapons he hopes will allow to win the war.