Mr. Zelensky Goes to Washington

He’s asking for big arms, and the Biden administration is not abiding, balking on long-range weapons and shirking from slapping a terror designation on Russia.

By , a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy., and , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meets with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meets with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meets with U.S. President Joe Biden in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., on Dec. 21. Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is visiting Washington hoping to shore up U.S. support for his country’s efforts to fend off a Russian military invasion and ask for more advanced weapons systems to maintain battlefield momentum against Moscow’s forces in eastern Ukraine.

Coming just a day after Ukraine’s wartime leader visited troops in the eastern city of Bakhmut, where a fevered battle is taking place with Russian forces in the Donetsk region, Zelensky met with U.S. President Joe Biden and will address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday afternoon, as Congress aims to wrap up a $1.7 trillion spending bill that includes billions more dollars in aid money for Ukraine.

The visit coincides with the administration’s announcement that it will send an additional $1.85 billion in military aid to Ukraine, including Patriot air defense systems and other munitions and equipment. The United States has sent Ukraine around $21.3 billion in military assistance since Russia launched its invasion in February. Zelensky is meeting with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the top U.S. military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, alongside Biden this afternoon.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is visiting Washington hoping to shore up U.S. support for his country’s efforts to fend off a Russian military invasion and ask for more advanced weapons systems to maintain battlefield momentum against Moscow’s forces in eastern Ukraine.

Coming just a day after Ukraine’s wartime leader visited troops in the eastern city of Bakhmut, where a fevered battle is taking place with Russian forces in the Donetsk region, Zelensky met with U.S. President Joe Biden and will address a joint session of Congress on Wednesday afternoon, as Congress aims to wrap up a $1.7 trillion spending bill that includes billions more dollars in aid money for Ukraine.

The visit coincides with the administration’s announcement that it will send an additional $1.85 billion in military aid to Ukraine, including Patriot air defense systems and other munitions and equipment. The United States has sent Ukraine around $21.3 billion in military assistance since Russia launched its invasion in February. Zelensky is meeting with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and the top U.S. military officer, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, alongside Biden this afternoon.

Zelensky is expected to urge Washington to send even more advanced and longer-range weapons, such as Army Tactical Missile Systems (ATACMS) and high-end drones, to help attack Russian basing and logistical hubs in an effort to disrupt their plans for offensives in the new year. The Biden administration has balked at sending ATACMS, wary of them being used to strike positions inside Russia and escalate the war. The United States has also pushed back on desperate Ukrainian requests for more advanced armored vehicles, such as Bradley and Stryker systems, fearing that the complexity of maintaining those systems would be a step too far for Ukraine’s military.

“What I am concerned about is a slow pace and small amounts of deliveries and too much political hesitation,” said Artis Pabriks, who was Latvia’s defense minister until earlier this month and who now heads up the Northern European Policy Center, a think tank. “So just give them those missile defense systems and radar systems and let them work, because these are people’s lives. They are fighting for us and dying. So we just have to do it.”

Long-range fire isn’t the only point of contention. Zelensky’s visit comes as the Biden administration and Congress are wrestling over one of the Ukrainian leader’s biggest asks: for Biden to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, a move that would trigger some of the U.S. government’s most far-reaching sanctions against the Kremlin and put Moscow in the same category as states such as Cuba, North Korea, and Iran. For the designation to be removed, the president would have to submit a report to congressional leader to certify that an offending country has changed its behavior for at least six months.

Zelensky’s request is not without foundation, though many Ukrainian apartment blocks now are. Russia has for months deliberately targeted civilians and basic infrastructure such as power plants and water-purification plants with a barrage of missile strikes in a bid to cow Ukraine and compensate for the lackluster performance of Russian armed forces in the war.

For months, top Biden administration officials have urged Congress not to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, arguing, among other things, that it would deny the United States flexibility to bring the Kremlin to the negotiating table to end the war. U.S. officials—including Secretary of State Antony Blinken; a top State Department official, Victoria Nuland; and Jim O’Brien, the head of the agency’s office of sanctions coordination—have told Ukrainian officials that they are working on a different designation designed to satisfy the urge for more punitive sanctions on Russia without the risk of unintended consequences.

The bill now being pushed by Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, seen in draft form by Foreign Policy, would label Russia as an “aggressor state,” instead of a state sponsor of terrorism, a move that would allow Biden to order a raft of sanctions on the Kremlin, including punishments and visa revocations for officials and troops trying to undermine Ukraine’s democracy and assert claims to its territory and assets. But Republican lawmakers and Ukrainian officials are worried that the bill lacks legal muscle beyond available authorities and is the Biden team’s way of providing itself political cover after the European Parliament declared Russia to be a state sponsor of terror last month.

“The proposed ‘Aggressor State’ designation is a poor substitute for what Ukraine has called for: a State Sponsor of Terror designation for Russia,” Rep. Michael McCaul, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said in a tweet on Tuesday night. “This new designation fails to hold [Russian President Vladimir] Putin accountable for his heinous war crimes and unprovoked war against Ukraine.” In a statement, a collection of Ukrainian American groups pushing back against the bill expressed fear that the new designation would set the table for easing sanctions on Russia and returning frozen assets to the Kremlin.

Four other NATO allies—Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, and Poland—have already formally declared Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism. All four countries are on NATO’s eastern flank and some of the biggest supporters of Ukraine in terms of per-capita military and economic aid. Zelensky also urged the U.N. Security Council to take a “firm reaction” last month to Russia’s missile barrages against critical infrastructure that have caused power outages across vast swaths of Ukraine, but the Kremlin’s veto power on that body has halted any action.

Administration officials are concerned that a terrorist state designation—which is only applied to Cuba, North Korea, Iran, and Syria—could have adverse impacts on a U.N.-brokered deal to allow grain to be exported from Ukraine’s ports, which is set to expire near the end of March. Many on Capitol Hill see the pending legislation as a face-saving measure that could halt debate over a terror designation.

“It’s a cop-out. It’s too cute by half,” said a congressional aide, speaking on condition of anonymity to talk about deliberations with the Biden administration. “They’re trying to have their cake and eat it, too. They think that people are too stupid to realize that they’re coming up with a designation that means nothing, and they think that the Ukrainians will somehow be grateful and no one will see what they’re doing.” Meanwhile, congressional officials have worked on various avenues to solidify the freeze of Russian sovereign assets in U.S. banks until a peace deal is in place that would provide Ukraine compensation for war damage out of the Kremlin’s coffers.

Ukrainian officials aren’t buying it. They have been pushing for Russia to receive the terror designation in part because it would create grounds to confiscate Russian assets in U.S. banks, since labeled states are no longer entirely subject to sovereign immunity.

“They would have problems with doing business with the United States, and that would really trigger isolation of Russia from the global economy,” said Daria Kaleniuk, the executive director of the Anti-Corruption Action Center in Ukraine. “And that’s what’s important to do to prevent the flow of money to the Russian economy and to prevent them from building more missiles.”

Meanwhile, as the fight over the terror designation has been heating up in Washington, the Biden administration has been speedily planning Zelensky’s visit, the second one-on-one meeting between the two leaders after the Ukrainian president’s visit to Washington in September 2021, just weeks before the White House began sounding warnings about a possible full-scale Russian invasion. While many Western leaders have visited Ukraine, the United States has apparently ruled out sending Biden into the war zone, citing security concerns, leaving Zelensky to make the 10-hour flight to Washington. A senior Biden administration official told reporters that the leaders first discussed the possibility of the visit during a call on Dec. 11, followed by a formal invitation last week. The meeting was only confirmed on Sunday.

The visit comes amid growing fears of Russia’s military leaders planning a new counteroffensive in the new year, banking that their mass mobilization and a relative respite from the fighting can give them time to regroup and regain some of the territory they lost in stinging battlefield defeats this year. Ukrainian officials have said that they have reached the limit in what they can do with the weapons they have and fear they will lose their battlefield momentum without more advanced weapons systems.

Putin has vowed to double down on the war, despite it turning from what his government believed would be a swift several-day invasion into a massive military quagmire with staggering battlefield losses. Putin at an annual Defense Ministry meeting on Wednesday vowed that no expenses would be spared to bolster Russia’s military. “The country and government is giving everything that the army asks for—everything,” he said.

Jack Detsch is a Pentagon and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @JackDetsch

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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