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The war in Ukraine is at a ‘turning point’: Why the timing of Zelenskyy’s trip to Washington is so critical


When Ukraine’s president stepped onto the floor of the US Congress, he was given a reception few political leaders will ever experience.

Amid rapturous applause and repeated standing ovations, Volodymyr Zelenskyy thanked American politicians for the billions of dollars in assistance they have provided his country so far.

But his historic visit to Washington DC, 10 months after Russian troops began their invasion, was about much more than expressing gratitude.

Mr Zelenskyy is seeking to shore up support at a time when a largely bipartisan commitment to the war effort appears to be wavering.

And he knows just how crucial help from the United States, Ukraine’s largest contributor of military support, is in fighting back against the Russian onslaught.

Zelenskyy will hold Biden to his word

At a press conference held alongside Mr Zelenskyy at the White House, President Joe Biden repeatedly vowed the US would be there for Ukraine for “as long as it takes”.

He announced a commitment that Ukrainians had long called for, confirming the US would provide the country with a sophisticated Patriot air-defence system.

The pledge formed part of a new, almost $US2 billion ($3 billion) security package, timed to coincide with Mr Zelenskyy’s visit.

The US has already provided a total of about $US50 billion ($75 billion) in combined military, humanitarian and financial aid, with Congress now considering a further package worth $US45 billion ($67 billion).

But as Republicans prepare to take back control of the House of Representatives after last month’s midterm elections, some in the party appear increasingly sceptical about how the money is being spent.

The frontrunner for the position of House Speaker, Kevin McCarthy, has warned against writing what he describes as a “blank cheque” for Ukraine.

Texas representative Chip Roy reportedly described Mr Zelenskyy’s speech to Congress as “theatre” orchestrated by Democrats, while Colorado representative Lauren Boebert argued there had been a lack of accountability so far.

“Until Congress receives a full audit on where our money has already gone, I will not support sending additional money to this war,” she said following the president’s address.

Mr Zelenskyy sought to reassure the politicians, telling them US funds were not “charity”, but rather an “investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way”.

“This battle cannot be frozen or postponed. It cannot be ignored, hoping that the ocean or something else will provide a protection,” he said.

“From the United States to China, from Europe to Latin America, and from Africa to Australia, the world is too interconnected and interdependent to allow someone to stay aside and at the same time to feel safe when such a battle continues.”

He also had a message for the people they represent, some of whom may be growing weary of the huge amount of money being sent overseas while they struggle with cost-of-living pressures.

“In two days, we will celebrate Christmas,” Mr Zelenskyy said, speaking directly to Americans watching at home.

“[It] may be candlelit. Not because it’s more romantic, no, but because there will be no electricity. Millions won’t have heating, nor running water.

“All of these will be the result of Russian missile and drone attacks on our energy infrastructure.

“But we do not complain, we do not judge and compare whose life is easier.”

Zelenskyy delivers speech layered with symbolism

The TV star-turned-politician is an expert at crafting a narrative and this visit to Washington was carefully choreographed and rich in symbolism.

He arrived in the US capital wearing his signature olive-green, military-style clothing exactly 300 days after Russia’s invasion began.

The trip only lasted a matter of hours but included several emotionally charged moments, including gifting the US president a Ukrainian war medal, passed on by a captain on the frontline.

Mr Zelenskyy also presented Congress with a Ukrainian flag signed by some of his nation’s soldiers, taking the opportunity to remind those assembled that their decisions “can save millions of people”.

Just as he did in a video message to the Congress back in March, he made historical references squarely aimed at his audience, pointing to American victories such as the Battle of Saratoga, which helped to secure necessary foreign support in the Revolutionary War.

The address also drew comparisons to that of another wartime leader, Winston Churchill, who appeared before a joint session of Congress in the weeks after the attacks on Pearl Harbour almost 81 years ago.

Even before Mr Zelenskyy’s speech started, his team quickly turned around a slick social media video recapping the day’s earlier events and seeking to convey the significance of the occasion.

The Ukrainian president has visited Washington before, albeit in very different circumstances.

In September last year, ahead of the war, he had a much sought-after meeting with Mr Biden in the Oval Office before being quizzed by reporters on Capitol Hill about his place at the centre of the political scandal which led to Donald Trump’s first impeachment.

“I would like Ukraine to be known, not notorious,” he was quoted as saying.

Fifteen months on, Time’s person of the year had the full attention of the administration, much of the US Congress and the world’s media.

And he was determined to make the most of the opportunity.

Ukraine war at ‘turning point’ as winter looms

Ukraine has defied expectations with its ability to fight back against Russia’s invasion, but it faces an incredibly difficult path ahead as the war stretches into a second year.

Mr Biden has accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of using “winter as a weapon” by attacking civilian infrastructure, including the energy grid, in the coldest, darkest part of the year.

Russia has already mobilised hundreds of thousands of reservists and this week announced a new plan to dramatically increase the size of its military.

Mr Zelenksyy used his congressional address to predict a “turning point” next year, when he argued the courage of his people, “and American resolve must guarantee the future of our common freedom”.

For Ukrainians enduring the daily realities of a war with no clear end, the success of their leader’s trip will be measured in terms of the practical support he is able to secure.

The president is returning home with one long-awaited Patriot missile battery.

But he has made it very clear he will be asking for more.

Source : ABC

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