Volodymyr Zelensky wowed Washington on Wednesday. Or at least, he wowed most of it.
There’s nothing the US capital enjoys more than rolling out the red carpet for a sure-fire, true-grit hero.
“This guy, to his very soul, is who he says he is”, US President Joe Biden observed at the White House, saying Zelensky is “willing to give his life for his country”.
Underscoring that message, the Ukrainian leader wore his trademark military fatigues both at the White House and for his primetime speech to a joint session of Congress.
There was to be no quick-change into a business suit. The symbolism was clear: Zelensky, who only on Tuesday visited troops in the battle-hardened eastern city of Bakhmut, may still have had its mud on his boots when he walked through the Oval Office doors.
Zelensky hoped this visit would cement into place the relationship between Washington and Kyiv, ahead of the testing Russian spring-time offensive both the US and Ukrainian governments are anticipating.
But reacting to the Ukranian leader’s sartorial appearance, Republicans offered an indication of the obstacles Zelensky faces in achieving his goals here.
Donald Trump Jr, on Twitter, referred to Zelensky as a “welfare queen”. Benny Johnson, a host on right-leamning Newsmax TV, called Zelensky an “ungrateful piece of sh*t” who has “no respect for the country that is funding his survival”. Zelensky is, said Mr Johnson, a “tracksuit-wearing, eastern European con-man”.
It is hard to square those viewpoints with the party of Ronald Reagan. Imagine the admiration and support that Zelensky would have secured from the Gipper, had the two men’s paths ever crossed.
But today’s Republican party is barely a unitary institution, and that was plainly evident on Capitol Hill on Wednesday night as Zelensky’s address thundered through the House of Representatives chamber.
He marveled at the fact that 300 days after the Russian invasion “Ukraine is alive and kicking… we defeated Russia in the battle for minds of the world”.
American largesse bestowed on Ukraine “is not charity”, Zelensky insisted. “It’s an investment in global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way”.
He warned Congress of the need for more help in the year ahead, thanking its members for numerous shipments of artillery since the war began, but saying “is it enough? Not really”.
The 23-minute speech was interrupted regularly for thunderous applause from Democrats and Republicans alike, but notably not from members of the pro-Putin wing of the Republican Party.
Congressman Matt Gaetz of Florida and Congresswoman Lauren Boebert of Colorado joined a handful of fellow right-wingers who failed to applaud the speech, and scrolled through their mobile phones in an apparent act of boredom as Zelensky’s oration continued.
They have made it clear that starting next month, when Republicans control a majority in the House of Representatives, they will not write the blank cheques for Ukraine that Presidents Biden and Zelensky are demanding.
Even now, a $1.7trn spending bill that provides another $45bn in assistance for Ukraine has run into difficulty in the Senate, with the possibility of another government shutdown looming if it fails to pass before the end of the week.
The White House used the dying days of the current Congress to bestow early Christmas gifts on Zelensky and his army. Another $2.2bn in assistance was unveiled on Wednesday, including a Patriot Missile battery that the Ukrainians have long craved.
Making the announcement, Secretary of State Antony Blinken observed that the US has already provided Ukraine with more than $21.9bn in military assistance.
He claimed that “Russia is trying to weaponise winter by freezing and starving Ukrainian civilians”. America, he said, “will continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes.”
That could be a very long commitment, given Zelensky’s only-eliptical references to an unpublished, 10-point “peace formula” he said he had presented to Biden.
Zelensky told Congress it would be “naïve to wait for peace from Russia”, and during a joint press conference with Biden struggled even to imagine what a “just peace” would look like given that “terrorist actions” he claims Russian President Vladimir Putin has committed against his country.
Biden waded-in, seeking at least to offer a glimmer of hope that the war may eventually wrap up.
“We both want this war to end”, he assured reporters, claiming “it could end today if Putin had any dignity at all and did the right thing and pulled out. But that’s not gonna happen”.
Biden vowed to “continue to help Ukraine succeed on the battlefield”, warning Americans they should be ready to “stand together” with Kyiv throughout 2023.
If Zelensky hoped his visit to Washington would see consensus emerge on that score, it may prove to be a tall order.
Even a bona fide war hero was unable to sway some Republican minds on Capitol Hill, and persuade them to put their mobiles away while he talked.