Volodymyr Zelenskiy is finding his latest visit to Washington a much tougher occasion than the hero’s welcome he was given nine months ago.
Zelenskiy was given a standing ovation when he delivered an address to a joint sitting of Congress in December. This time, he addressed the Senate in a closed session, but House Republicans turned down a request to address both chambers again. They are also reported to have turned down an administration briefing on Ukraine.
Zelenskiy arrived on Capitol Hill in the midst of a bitter spending battle that could trigger a government shutdown, and he faced difficult conversations when he met congressional leaders behind closed doors. Republicans have proposed a stopgap bill that does not include funding for Ukraine, an omission that the Senate majority leader, Chuck Schumer, called “an insult to Ukraine and a gift to Putin”.
“I cannot think of a worse welcome for Zelenskiy,” Schumer said.
The Republican leadership in the Senate is broadly pro-Ukrainian, but the party is more divided in the House, where the speaker, Kevin McCarthy, faces a restive group on the right hostile to military support for Kyiv. McCarthy made clear to his party that he would approach Biden’s pending request for an additional $24bn in support for Ukraine with considerable scepticism.
“Is Zelenskiy elected to Congress? Is he our president? I don’t think I have to commit anything and I think I have questions for him,” McCarthy told ABC News.
“Where’s the accountability on the money we’ve already spent? What is the plan for victory? I think that’s what the American public wants to know,” McCarthy added.
Democrats too said they would have questions if the Ukrainian delegation came with requests for drone technology. Party leaders are wary of providing weapon systems that could be used to strike Russian territory, and congressional sources say Zelenskiy will be quizzed on Kyiv’s role in recent strikes on Moscow and other targets deep within Russia.
After his visit to the Hill, Zelenskiy was scheduled to cross the Potomac to the Pentagon for a meeting with the defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, and the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen Mark Milley.
Then in mid-afternoon, he is due at the White House to meet Joe Biden. The US president is expected to announce a new $325m military aid package on the occasion of the visit, but the package will reportedly not include the 300km-range Atacms missiles Ukraine has been asking for.
Kyiv wants Atacms to help its forces strike deep behind Russian lines to disrupt their supplies and demoralise the entrenched enemy troops. The Biden administration was reported in recent days to be moving towards approval of supplying the missiles. Zelenskiy told CNN on Tuesday that he was sure the negotiations were “on the finishing line”.
However, the national security council spokesperson, John Kirby, said on Wednesday the issue had not been resolved.
“Atacms are not off the table. We continue to have discussions here in the interagency about that particular weapon system, but no decision has been made,” Kirby told reporters.
US officials have said in the past that the Pentagon has concerns over the inventory of Atacms for US defence needs and the White House wants to ensure it does not supply weapons that could be used to hit Russian territory, for fear of being seen by Moscow as a direct combatant.
Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA officer, said that if the missile is withheld from the Ukrainians, it would count as “an unfortunate failure” by the administration.
“It’s fair to ask, do they really want Ukraine to prevail, or just force them to the negotiating table?” Polymeropoulos wrote on social media. “This shows US timidity, and Russia will read it accordingly.”