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Zelensky to pitch Congress on Ukraine aid as border talks stall

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky warned the United States on Monday against allowing politics to “betray” his beleaguered army in its war with Russia, attempting to jump-start stalled negotiations on Capitol Hill over providing further support to his nation.

President Biden’s request for billions of dollars in additional U.S. military assistance for Ukraine has stalled over Republican demands for politically fraught changes to asylum and other immigration policies in exchange for their votes. Zelensky is expected to make the case for the aid in remarks to senators and in a meeting with House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) and other congressional leaders on Tuesday.

Zelensky, speaking to an audience of U.S. and international military personnel at the National Defense University in Washington, said his nation’s chances at victory hang in the balance, and argued that the United States abandoning Ukraine would lead Russian President Vladimir Putin and other dictators to celebrate.

“When the free world hesitates,” Zelensky said, “that’s when dictators celebrate. … If there’s anyone inspired by unresolved issues on Capitol Hill, it is just Putin and his sick clique.”

“It’s crucial that politics don’t even try to betray the soldier,” he added later. “Just like weapons are needed for their defense, freedom always requires unity.”

Biden — who will meet with Zelensky on Tuesday at the White House after his stops on the Hill — invited the leader to Washington as lawmakers take an increasingly pessimistic tone on congressional aid for Ukraine.

The president’s $110.5 billion supplemental aid package — which includes funds to help Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and to fortify the U.S.-Mexico border — appears unlikely to pass before Congress leaves Washington for the holidays. Lawmakers have haggled for weeks over immigration policy changes that many Republicans want in exchange for additional Ukraine funding. Some Democrats, meanwhile, have pushed back on the premise of the talks, saying making asylum harder to obtain would not solve the problems at the southern border.

The United States has provided Ukraine with more than $44 billion in security assistance since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022, and White House officials say they are nearing an end to the military support they can provide on their own to the nation.

“We absolutely need to get additional funding to support Ukraine going forward,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Monday. He added that the administration would send security assistance to Ukraine before the end of the year.

“It’s a matter of life and death for Ukraine,” said a senior adviser to Zelensky, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive talks with senior U.S. lawmakers and administration officials. “Time is of the essence: That’s the message.”

Zelensky’s hastily organized trip to Washington was arranged last week while the Ukrainian leader was visiting Argentina in a bid to boost support among developing countries.

Besides trying to win over Republicans, Zelensky also plans to request that Biden sign off on transferring new and more powerful weapons capabilities to Ukraine. The adviser declined to name the specific capability Kyiv is seeking.

Zelensky intends to underscore that declining to continue funding the war in Ukraine will play into the hands of Putin and bolster his push for Ukraine to capitulate and settle the conflict on Russia’s terms. Ukraine fears that further delays could also embolden Russia to order more aggressive assaults on Ukrainian forces in the coming days.

Zelensky will attempt to allay any concerns Republicans might have about how U.S. funds will be spent, and he won’t weigh in on the issue of immigration or the border that has tied up the aid, the adviser said.

He was introduced before his address on Monday by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, who in brief remarks only tacitly alluded to the standoff in Congress, saying “America’s word must be kept.”

The United States has led efforts to equip and train Ukrainian forces, who struggled to break through this summer in a counteroffensive that officials in Washington and Kyiv had hoped would lead to a major breakthrough in the war that is fast approaching the start of its third year.

Zelensky’s third visit to Capitol Hill comes as lawmakers have just a few more days to negotiate a complex immigration deal before they are slated to leave town for the holidays — a goal one of the deal’s top negotiators said they would not meet.

“As a sign of good faith Democrats are going to keep trying” to reach a deal, Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Monday. “The onus is on Republicans to show they are willing to moderate.”

Leaders of the GOP-controlled House have made clear they do not plan on sticking around to see if senators strike a deal.

“I can’t imagine we would stay in … especially if border talks aren’t going somewhere serious,” said Rep. Kelly Armstrong (R-N.D.).

Biden signaled last week he would be willing to accept significant immigration restrictions to get a deal, and some Republican lawmakers have urged him to get more involved in negotiations. Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), a key negotiator on the possible border deal, said on social media it was “great” that Senate Democrats and the White House were talking all weekend, but Republicans need to be a part of that conversation.

“We are not going to make any real progress on securing the border until everyone is at the table,” Lankford said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

While majorities of Republican and Democratic lawmakers supported Ukraine aid shortly after Russia invaded, the support has waned on the Republican side as polls showed conservative voters rejecting it.

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (R-Iowa) said he believed Democrats had asked Zelensky to appear in order to pressure Republicans to “forget about the border” and just aid his cause. Zelensky will “plead the case that we can’t go home for Christmas unless we appropriate the money to Ukraine,” Grassley said, but added that he didn’t believe it would be successful.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has been one of the most vocal Republican supporters of Ukraine, arguing that abandoning the nation would empower Putin and other foes of the United States. But he has joined his conference in demanding immigration changes to support the supplemental funding package.

“When it comes to keeping America safe, border security is not a sideshow,” McConnell said on Monday. “It’s ground zero. Senate Republicans have no more spare time to explain this basic reality.”

Throughout his speech on Monday, Zelensky invoked the spread of democratic ideals and prosperity that followed the Berlin Wall’s collapse, cautioning that, since then, “freedom’s enemies got stronger.” And as he’s done in past speeches to the American public, the Ukrainian leader sought to position his country as a bulwark against Putin’s expansionist desires.

“You can count on Ukraine. And we hope just as much to be able to count on you,” he said.

Leigh Ann Caldwell and Tyler Pager contributed to this report.

This post appeared first on The Washington Post

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