WASHINGTON ― Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited the White House and Capitol Hill on Thursday with specific objectives at each place: secure long-range munitions from the U.S. while persuading skeptical Republicans to pass a fifth aid package for Kyiv worth $25 billion.
“If we don’t get the aid, we will lose the war,” multiple senators recounted Zelenskyy saying after a rare meeting in the historic Old Senate Chamber.
But Zelenskyy’s message appeared to fall on deaf ears. The White House still refuses to provide the long-range Army Tactical Missile Systems, or ATACMS, Kyiv has sought for more than a year, previously supportive Republicans are turning against additional assistance and Poland has halted the transfer of arms to Ukraine amid a trade dispute over grain.
During the meeting, Zelenskyy made the case that Ukraine has degraded the Russian military, but that Moscow would be able to reconstitute its forces if Kyiv doesn’t keep the pressure up over the next several months.
He also pushed the U.S. to provide ATACMS, which can fly as far as 186 miles when fired from HIMARS. This would allow Kyiv to strike Russian assets positioned deep in occupied Ukrainian territory, beyond the current range of most of Ukraine’s artillery.
The majority of senators support providing Ukraine with another aid package, which would include $13 billion for the Pentagon to continue providing military support against Russia’s invasion. Not so in the House, where a growing coalition of Republicans is coming out against the White House’s latest aid request.
Zelenskyy did not have the opportunity to meet with many members of the growing group of House Republican skeptics because Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., did not arrange a similar all-members briefing in the lower chamber. Instead, McCarthy received Zelenskyy in a meeting with leadership as well as the Republican heads and top Democrats of key committees.
Zelenskyy had asked to address another joint meeting of Congress like he did in December, which more than half of the House Republican caucus skipped. But McCarthy declined, citing the House’s time constraints.
House Defense Appropriations Chairman Ken Calvert, R-Calif., described the House meeting with Zelenskyy as “cordial,” but declined to commit to advancing another Ukraine aid package. He noted his priority right now is securing passage of the annual defense spending bill — which the House failed to pass on Thursday for the third time in two weeks on the cusp of a government shutdown amid a revolt from the far-right Freedom Caucus.
McCarthy also did not commit to passing another Ukraine aid package after the meeting.
If Congress does not pass a fifth aid package, the Pentagon still has roughly $5.5 billion in drawdown authority it says it can use to continue transferring weapons to Ukraine past the end of the fiscal year, which concludes this month. But another $2.5 billion in authority to backfill U.S. stockpiles of weapons sent to Kyiv would expire.
Congress has already passed a cumulative $113 billion in military and economic aid for Ukraine since Russia’s invasion last year.
Numerous House Republicans aligned with the Freedom Caucus have opposed previous tranches of aid, but now even defense hawks have started to lay down red lines on additional assistance.
Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., who chairs the House Armed Services subcommitee on readiness, said “the era of Ukraine’s blank check from Congress is over” in a Fox News op-ed on Monday. Waltz called for conditions on Ukraine aid, without offering details.
On Thursday, after Zelenskyy’s visit, a Republican defense appropriator who previously supported Ukrainian assistance released his own set of conditions for future aid packages.
Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., issued a list of 12 conditions to secure his vote on future aid packages, some of which were unrelated to Ukraine. They include a public update from President Joe Biden and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on the status of the war, a Biden administration report on sanctions enforcement against Russia as well as a “coherent strategy for Ukraine to prevail” and under what timeline.
He also called for all NATO members to “adopt a full sanctions policy” on Russian grain, rare-earth minerals and oil — something several European countries have been hesitant to do for fear of worsening their economies. The unrelated conditions include passage of a House Republican immigration bill strongly opposed by Democrats and support for a junior enlisted pay raise Garcia secured in the defense spending bill, which the White House opposes.
Conversely, Sen. Roger Wicker of Mississippi, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee, lambasted the Biden administration for not providing the long-range ATACMS, which Zelenskyy had hoped to secure during his visit.
“Does the Biden administration want Ukraine to win, or not?” Wicker said in a statement. “Every delay in supplying Ukraine with the tools it needs to secure victory has cost unnecessary lives and prolonged the war.”
He called on the White House to send Congress another supplemental spending request with money to expand production lines for ATACMS and Precision Strike Missiles.
Laura Cressey, director of arms transfers at the State Department’s political-military affairs bureau, told the Defense News Conference earlier this month the Biden administration is “closely considering” long-range fires for Ukraine. But it’s unclear whether the U.S. has enough ATACMS in its stocks to send Kyiv without compromising its own readiness.
A provision in the House’s fiscal 2024 defense policy bill would require the Pentagon to build the Lockheed Martin-made ballistic missiles for Kyiv via the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. Britain has also provided long-range Storm Shadow cruise missiles to Ukraine.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.