On Dec. 21, Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy traveled to Washington, D.C., the leader’s first trip outside of Ukraine since Russia invaded the country in February, to shore up continued support for the ongoing war against Russia. During the visit, Zelenskyy met with President Biden and other senior members of the administration including Vice President Harris, Secretary Blinken and senior members of the National Security Council, and delivered an address to Congress that was met largely with bipartisan support, as lawmakers work to pass an omnibus appropriations bill that includes $45 billion in additional military and humanitarian assistance for Ukraine. Zelenskyy’s visit, which had been planned by Ukrainian government officials for weeks in advance, aimed to apply pressure on the U.S. government to not only continue providing aid and weapons to Ukraine, but to supply offensive weapons as well, which thus far the United States and other NATO countries have been hesitant to give. The visit also comes under the context of an upcoming Congress in which U.S. support for Ukraine will likely be challenged by some far-right House Republicans, who will be increasingly able to influence the GOP’s overall legislative agenda under a thin Republican majority in the House chamber.
In his meeting with President Biden, President Zelenskyy reiterated his requests for additional economic and military support to be sent to Ukraine, with an emphasis on advanced weaponry such as U.S. Patriot missile systems that allow Ukrainian forces to launch counterstrikes against Russian air forces and other remote military targets. The two leaders also reportedly discussed the 10-point peace plan proposed by Zelenskyy during the November G20 summit, a framework that includes conditions Russia would have to accede to in order for Ukraine to agree to a ceasefire. However, it is unclear whether the Kremlin would agree to the proposal as it is currently written, and the White House has reiterated that any peace agreement would be led and wholly determined by Ukraine’s government, making it unlikely that a peace arrangement will be finalized in the foreseeable future.
In his speech to Congress, which was given entirely in English, Zelenskyy thanked the U.S. government and “all Americans” for the support given to Ukraine thus far, while also underscoring the ongoing need for critical support to Ukraine’s military to defend against the invasion. Zelenskyy noted that military and economic assistance to Ukraine was “not charity,” and represented “an investment in the global security and democracy,” addressing longstanding criticisms from some members of Congress that the continued provision of support for Ukraine by the U.S. government is fiscally irresponsible. The speech was met mostly with bipartisan applause and support, though some Republican members leveled criticism at the visit, U.S. spending on Ukraine or Zelenskyy’s remarks themselves, with some far-right House Republican members including Reps. Thomas Massie (R-KY) and Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) not attending in part due to political reasons. Many members had also previously arranged to vote by proxy on Dec. 21 in anticipation of an extreme winter weather event disrupting travel ahead of the holidays, with only 86 of 213 House Republicans attending the speech in total.
Reactions from Members of Congress
While Zelenskyy’s speech was largely met with bipartisan support from House and Senate members, some Republicans, including members of the House who will take on key leadership roles in the upcoming Congress, expressed a willingness to rethink U.S. assistance dollars to Ukraine during Zelenskyy’s visit. Following the speech, Rep. Steve Scalise (R-LA) noted that there is “concern that the money’s going to the places that it’s intended,” adding that the House Republican caucus broadly has “expressed an interest in making sure the money is going to be scrutinized.” Rep. Gary Palmer (R-AL) praised the focus of Zelenskyy’s remarks on freedom, noting that they rightfully highlighted “the threat to liberty everywhere if you don’t take on a rogue regime,” while also noting the importance of Zelenskyy recognizing that “a lot of people are concerned about accountability” when it comes to U.S. assistance funding for Ukraine. Some more conservative members were more critical of U.S. funding for Ukraine, with Rep. Warren Davidson (R-OH) noting that “we should be focused on trying to contain the war, not expand the war,” and expressing his support for appointing “an inspector general to find what they did with all the money that we already sent them.” Rep. Chip Roy (R-TX) said shortly after the speech that “I hope they keep fighting Putin, but they’re playing with House money.” Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) released a tweet that stated that while Zelenskyy should be “Commended for putting his country first . . . Hemorrhaging billions in taxpayer dollars for Ukraine while our country is in crisis is the definition of America last. He did not change my stance on suspending aid for Ukraine and investigating fraud in transfers already made.”
Despite these criticisms, support for Ukraine assistance funding remains bipartisan, as most Republicans and nearly all Democratic members of the House and Senate have been unified in their willingness to provide military, economic and humanitarian aid to the country. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) tweeted that “America stands with [Zelenskyy] and with the brave people of Ukraine,” noting that Zelenskyy’s speech spoke to “the urgency of getting this funding bill done to approve more emergency wartime funding for Ukraine.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) noted shortly after the visit was announced publicly that “Continuing our support for Ukraine is morally right, but it’s not only that, it’s also a direct investment in cold hard American interest.”
Support for Ukraine in the 118th Congress
While the majority of members who have previously expressed support for providing economic and security assistance to Ukraine will continue to do so, calls for funding to be tampered down and for additional oversight to be given to the assistance dollars will continue from far-right members of the House Republican caucus in the upcoming Congress. Although these criticisms from House Republicans may lead to additional oversight being given to Ukraine assistance funding, we do not expect the overall commitment to Ukraine by a majority of members of Congress to significantly change in the upcoming Congress. However, some House Republicans will continue to search for opportunities to limit aid funding, with these members having additional influence over House Republican leadership due to the narrow majority and need for party unity in the House to enact legislation broadly on a partisan basis.
Future Plans for U.S. Security Aid to Ukraine
Zelenskyy’s visit, which comes as Ukraine prepares to enter a potentially intensified chapter in the conflict throughout the remainder of the winter season, underscored the need for Ukraine to continue to be provided critical security and economic assistance to repel Russia’s invasion. Given Zelenskyy’s focus on offensive weapons such as Patriot missile systems and other advanced weapons during the course of his visits with senior members of the administration, including high-level National Security Council and Defense Department officials and members of Congress, it can be expected that discussions around expanding U.S. assistance tranches to include these types of weapons will become more common heading into the new year. In line with the heightened focus on advanced weapons types, the Department of State announced the U.S. would send a $1.8 billion military aid package to Ukraine on Dec. 21, with the package including for the first time a Patriot missile battery and precision guided bombs for Ukraine’s fighter jets, among other Defense Department inventories.
THIS DOCUMENT IS INTENDED TO PROVIDE YOU WITH GENERAL INFORMATION REGARDING ZELENSKYY'S RECENT VISIT TO THE UNITED STATES AND THE STATE OF U.S.-UKRAINIAN RELATIONS. THE CONTENTS OF THIS DOCUMENT ARE NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE SPECIFIC LEGAL ADVICE. IF YOU HAVE ANY QUESTIONS ABOUT THE CONTENTS OF THIS DOCUMENT OR IF YOU NEED LEGAL ADVICE AS TO AN ISSUE, PLEASE CONTACT THE ATTORNEYS LISTED OR YOUR REGULAR BROWNSTEIN HYATT FARBER SCHRECK, LLP ATTORNEY. THIS COMMUNICATION MAY BE CONSIDERED ADVERTISING IN SOME JURISDICTIONS.