Zelensky says US and European freedom threatened by ‘Putin and his sick clique’

Russia’s real target is freedom in America and Europe despite a continuing war in Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelensky said in a candid speech at a defence university in Washington on Monday.

The Ukrainian president kick-started his visit to the US to ask for more aid to fight off the Russian invasion of his country.

Mr Zelensky said Russia’s war on Ukraine is not “just about some old-fashioned dictatorship trying to settle scores, real or imagined”.

“He’s fighting Ukraine, but really, he’s up against all of free, united Europe. He’s wrecking everyday life in Ukrainian cities, but his real target is the freedom people enjoy from Warsaw to Chicago to Yokohama,” the war-time president said in a speech at the National Defence University.

He said Russia had means to meddle with democracies worldwide. “Putin’s got buddies in this – each one a threat to any free nation, to regional or global order, to human rights and democracy, be it Hamas, Iran, North Korea, or others. No accidents here, they’re all linked by their hate for freedom.”

The Ukrainian president also asked the US and its allies to be confident in offering Ukraine support at a time the country is seeing fatigue and dwindling backing from its western partners.

“America and all free nations need to be confident in themselves, in their strength, in their leadership, so that dictatorships doubt themselves and their power to undermine freedom. When the free world hesitates, that’s when dictatorships celebrate, and their most dangerous ambitions ripen,” he said.

Mr Zelensky targeted the Russian president by his name in a rare departure from blaming the Kremlin and Moscow for the ongoing war. “If there’s anyone inspired by unresolved issues on Capitol Hill, it’s just Putin and his sick clique. They see their dreams come true when they see the delays and scandals. They see freedom falling when the support of freedom fighters goes down. People like Putin shouldn’t even hope to conquer freedom,” he said.

“Ukrainians haven’t given up and won’t give up. We know what to do. And you can count on Ukraine. And we hope just as much to be able to count on you," he told the audience of military leaders and students.

This is Mr Zelensky’s third visit to Washington since the war began, and he appeared at NDU wearing his trademark Army green long-sleeve shirt emblazoned with "I’m Ukrainian."

However, the times have changed significantly in a span of a year. Compared to the hero’s welcome he received in the Capitol last year, the Ukrainian leader is back to urge a divided Congress for support.

Mr Zelensky will attend meetings at the White House and with the Congress on Tuesday to make a personal push among lawmakers for a supplemental funding bill at a time officials have said the US is running out of money needed for Ukraine.

Mood at the Capitol Hill ahead of Mr Zelensky’s visit was grim as leading Senate negotiators said they were essentially out of time to strike a deal on the US-Mexico border security policies that Republicans have insisted be included in the package.

Defence secretary Lloyd Austin, who introduced the Ukrainian president, said America’s commitment to Ukraine is unshakeable and supporting the war is critical to ensuring the security of the US and its allies.

"America’s commitments must be honoured. America’s security must be defended. And America’s word must be kept," he said.

He said Zelensky is "living proof that a single person’s leadership can help rally an embattled democracy and inspire the free world and change the course of history".

The Congress has now entered its final week before breaking for Christmas and leaving very little time on hands for a mutual agreement with the Republicans for any rounds of future funding for Ukraine and Israel.