Why did Ukraine President Zelensky come to the U.S. now?


Zelensky Knows the Clock Is Ticking

Ukraine’s president is rushing to the United States for good reason.By Tom Nichols

A photo of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
Ukrainian Presidential Press Office / AP

DECEMBER 20, 2022

When Volodymyr Zelensky arrives in Washington—his first time leaving Ukraine since the Russian invasion last winter—he will find a city that is even more obsessed with itself than usual. The Republicans are about to take over the House with a tiny majority and a passel of empowered kooks, and a congressional committee has recommended that a former president of the United States be prosecuted for an attempt to defeat the constitutional transfer of power.

The American drama is important and the stakes for democracy are high, but President Zelensky will touch down in D.C. for a visit to the White House and a joint address to Congress after leaving a war zone where he and his compatriots are literally fighting for their lives and for the survival of their nation against a Russian dictator who intends to erase Ukraine as an independent state from the map.

Washington is already shutting down for the holidays, but the timing of Zelensky’s visit makes sense. Ukrainian cities have been bombarded by the Russians yet again over the past few days in an attempt to break the country’s will to fight. The ground war is otherwise in something like a strategic pause, as Russian President Vladimir Putin gives his forces time to regroup in advance of what will likely be another set of offensives. Putin is in Belarus—the logical jumping-off point for another run at Kyiv—where he is making a public show of giving a belly scratch to his favorite foreign sheepdog, Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko.

In the United States, meanwhile, the Biden administration is about to send a Patriot air-defense battery to Ukraine, an important addition to its ability to defend against Russian air and missile attacks. This is a significant step that will require training Ukrainians to operate the Patriot system and deepen cooperation between the United States, NATO, and Ukraine. Congress, meanwhile, is about to decide on sending billions more in aid. Ukraine needs this money not only to continue the fight but also for its people to survive as they face a harsh winter of violence from the man who vows not to end this war until Ukraine is under his control.

It seems apparent that Zelensky decided to make the trip to Washington because he is worried about the imminent GOP takeover of the House. He should be. Many of the Republicans who are about to become members of the majority—and to chair committees—have descended into reflexive mulishness about Ukraine, opposing whatever it is that President Joe Biden wants, solely as a matter of partisan showboating. Goaded on by the trolls and contrarians in the conservative press, people who professed to care little what was happening in Ukraine a year ago have pledged to exercise tight “oversight” of U.S. aid to Ukraine—as though the largest war in Europe since World War II is an over-budget consulting contract in suburban Virginia.

We do not yet know what Zelensky intends to say during this visit, particularly in his address to Congress. If all goes as planned, he will receive a boost in the international community from a handshake with Biden, who has done a masterful job of holding the Western alliance together in the face of Putin’s threats. (A White House meeting would also likely produce another jolt of vitriol in Moscow; the last missile barrage was almost certainly a response to the news about the Patriot missiles.) Zelensky is poised to move from being a beleaguered regional leader sending videos from a bunker to taking a place, well deserved and overdue, on the world stage as a statesman more than equal to the panicking KGB officer who is trying to kill him.

The real question, though, is whether anything Zelensky can say will matter to a Republican Party that has decided to torment the ghost of Ronald Reagan by taking sides with a neo-imperial Soviet nostalgist.

Overall, of course, rank-and-file Republicans support aiding Ukraine against Russia. But the Trumpian GOP is now controlled by its fringe, the same activists and primary voters who wear the i’d rather be a russian than a democrat T-shirts. Although much of the aid for Ukraine (including the Patriot system) is already in the pipeline, GOP grandstanding for the base could create more danger for Ukraine by encouraging Putin to believe that America’s commitment to freedom will wane over time. Indeed, the Russian president’s decision to invade Ukraine, as The New York Times reported this weekend, was predicated in part on his belief in the West’s weakness and short attention span.

Republicans performing for their base are unlikely to change their views now. But Zelensky is about to speak to all of America, and his presence in Washington will help remind people that this is not some esoteric foreign-policy tangle, but a brutal, bloody human contest between democracy and authoritarianism. His presence in front of a divided Congress might—at least, we can hope—help Americans ignore the cartoonish objections of right-wing pundits and strengthen the broader bipartisan coalition in the United States dedicated to protecting freedom in Europe and around the world.

The war in Ukraine is not over. When the Ukrainian president speaks on Wednesday, he will be a symbol not only of one nation’s struggle against the Kremlin, but of the global fight for democracy. Unfortunately, it is a fight with multiple fronts—and that includes Capitol Hill.

Tom Nichols is a staff writer at The Atlantic and the author of the Peacefield newsletter and the Atlantic Daily newsletter.

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