Zelensky’s latest Washington visit comes at critical moment for Ukraine on the battlefield and Capitol Hill

By Kevin Liptak, Arlette Saenz and MJ Lee, CNN

Washington CNN  — 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrives for talks in Washington on Tuesday at a critical moment, as the White House warns American aid to Ukraine could imminently dry up and talks over new assistance are stalled in Congress.

The eleventh-hour invite from President Joe Biden underscores the urgency in approving the new package, worth tens billions of dollars, as he and other administration officials are warning the already-approved American aid will be exhausted by year’s end.

Biden has requested around $60 billion in new aid to Ukraine, part of a larger emergency funding package that also includes assistance for Israel and funds for border security. Republicans have sought to use the request as leverage to extract tough new rules limiting migration across the US southern border.

The hope among Biden’s team is that Zelensky can convince lawmakers, and particularly Republicans, of the necessity for more aid to replenish his war chests. Administration officials have long viewed Zelensky as his country’s most effective advocate, and he has spent the 21 months since Russia invaded in February 2022 addressing international parliaments, assemblies, summits and award shows to muster support.

Zelensky made a direct appeal for more security aid on Monday during a speech at the National Defense University in Washington, saying Russian President Vladimir Putin is seeing his “dreams come true” as delays continue in Congress.

“Every one of you here understands what it means for a soldier to wait for munition – waiting for weeks, months, without knowing if support will come at all. Every one of you with command experience knows what it means when instead of moving forward, you’re just watching, waiting for armor or equipment while your enemy is satisfied and preparing for assaults. Any of you with a son or daughter in a combat zone just wouldn’t get it if they were told that protecting lives could wait because there’s a little more debating,” Zelensky said.

“Let me be frank with you, friends: 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 or some scandals, and they see freedom to fall when the support of freedom fighters go down.”

But the prospects of success in Washington this week appear slim, with talks at an impasse to link the new Ukraine assistance with a tightening of immigration rules.

Congress has already approved more than $100 billion for Ukraine along bipartisan lines, and backing for Kyiv was relatively unanimous at the start of the conflict. But support for Ukraine has been steadily waning in Congress, particularly among Republicans closely aligned with former President Donald Trump.

Sen. James Lankford, the lead GOP negotiator on immigration policy, told CNN that nothing Zelenksy could say to senators Tuesday would change Republican demands that Congress strike a deal to tighten US border laws before approving more aid to Ukraine.

“No, no,” Lankford said when asked whether he’d be willing to punt on immigration until next year when Zelenksy urges Congress to approve Ukraine aid immediately.

Zelensky’s challenge will be convincing skeptical lawmakers that tens of billions in additional American assistance can help change the trajectory on the battlefield, where Ukraine has made only halting progress in recent months. A long-awaited counteroffensive against Russia has not yielded the type of progress many US and European officials had hoped for, with the battlelines changing little.

Putin is watching, White House warns

US officials spent the run-up to Zelensky’s arrival trying to send a warning to lawmakers: Putin is watching Congress.

A US official told CNN that the administration tracked Russian state TV seeming to “celebrate” a failed vote in the Senate last week to advance a supplemental package that included billions of dollars in additional aid for Ukraine.

“Putin is very closely watching what’s happening in Congress and the United States,” the official said.

For weeks, administration officials have been warning that time is running out for Congress to approve additional aid to help Ukraine continue its fight against Russia. They are also trying to make the broader argument that the funding issue sends a critical message to the rest of the world – including actors looking to invade other countries, on what they can and can’t get away with.

“Would-be aggressors are watching what’s happening closely,” the official said.

While administration officials believe there is no better advocate for Ukraine than the country’s president and expect a symbolism-heavy visit this week, they also acknowledge that it is entirely on Congress to break the impasse over border policies.

Zelensky’s schedule Tuesday will underscore the divides on Capitol Hill. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, both highly supportive of additional aid to Ukraine, invited Zelensky to speak to a meeting of all senators in the morning.

But he hasn’t been asked to address a similar meeting in the House, where support among Republicans is far softer. He will meet individually with GOP House Speaker Mike Johnson – just months after making a similar trip to Capitol Hill to cajole Johnson’s predecessor, Kevin McCarthy, into increasing assistance to Kyiv.

Later Zelensky will visit the White House for Oval Office talks and a news conference with Biden in the late afternoon.

“This cannot wait,” Biden said last week as a vote in the Senate on approving new aid failed. “It’s stunning that we’ve gotten to this point in the first place.”

He accused congressional Republicans of being “willing to give Putin the greatest gift he could hope for and abandon our global leadership not just in Ukraine, but beyond that.”

White House says it’s the right time for a visit

Zelensky’s trip to Washington came together late last week, with the details being finalized Friday, a White House official said, as lawmakers continued to negotiate over the aid.

Administration officials say without new approval from Congress for more aid, the US will be forced to tap its own stockpiles, potentially impairing American readiness.

Talk of the trip arose midweek as the Ukrainian president was preparing to travel to Argentina for the inauguration of President Javier Milei over the weekend. US and Ukrainian officials agreed to move forward with the visit to Washington since Zelensky would already be in the same hemisphere, giving the White House a chance to speak to why commitment to Ukraine should continue, the official said.

“I think it comes at a critical time,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Monday.

He said it was “exactly the right time” for Zelensky to visit, not only because of the “increased activity we’re seeing by the Russian Armed Forces … but also what’s going on Capitol Hill and the argument that the president’s going to be making.”

“It’s a chance for the president to get an update from President Zelensky about how things were going on the battlefront, but also to make it very clear to President Zelensky and the Ukrainian people that we’re going to continue to support them – particularly at this very difficult time as winter approaches (and) we’re seeing now increased missile and drone attacks by the Russian armed forces against civilian infrastructure,” Kirby said.

CNN’s Manu Raju contributed to this report.

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