Ukraine’s president spent the 94th week of Russia’s war rallying support on both sides of the Atlantic, as his troops continued to defend against constant Russian assaults to the east and south of Ukraine.
Although battle lines have hardly moved in weeks, Russia is trying to take the initiative after a Ukrainian summer counteroffensive put it on the defensive.
Zelenskyy’s task was to ensure Ukraine gets the money and weapons it needs to continue the fight next year, but a trip to Washington, DC, on Tuesday went unrewarded when a meeting with congressional Republicans failed to convince them to release $61.4bn in military and financial aid.
Meanwhile, the US Senate voted 51-49 against a $110.5bn measure brought forward by the Democrats. It did, however, provide $14bn for military aid to Israel.
Even if it had passed in the Senate, the Ukraine measure would still have to meet with House approval, where Republicans also hold the majority and hold Ukraine funds hostage to a domestic agenda including abortion restrictions.
“What the Biden administration seems to be asking for is billions of additional dollars with no appropriate oversight, no clear strategy to win and with none of the answers that I think the American people are owed,” House Speaker Mike Johnson said after his own meeting with Zelenskyy.
“(It) is practically impossible – even if we reach an agreement – to craft it, get it through the Senate, get to the House, before Christmas,” Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell told reporters in the United States Capitol.
“Make no mistake, today’s vote is going to be long remembered. History is going to judge harshly those who turned their backs on freedom’s cause,” Biden said in remarks at the White House.
Earlier, Biden told congressional Republicans what was at stake besides border security and abortions, as he stood beside Zelenskyy.
“Ukraine will emerge from this war proud, free and firmly rooted in the West – unless we walk away. But without supplemental funding, we’re rapidly coming to the end of our ability to help Ukraine respond to the urgent operational demands that it has. Putin is banking on the US failing to deliver for Ukraine. We must, we must, we must prove him wrong,” Biden said.
Plea for weapons
According to documents seen by Reuters, while he was in Washington, Zelenskyy asked for new weapons and armoury including F-18 Hornet fighter jets, Apache and Black Hawk attack helicopters. He also asked for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) air defence systems to supplement Ukraine’s existing umbrella of medium and low-range systems.
As part of the effort to convince Republicans to help Ukraine, the US intelligence community released a report that revealed how much the country had achieved with the $111bn in aid the US has already provided.
Ukraine had destroyed 90 percent of the forces that invaded it in February last year, the report said, costing Russia 315,000 dead and injured troops from an original force of 360,000, and destroying 2,200 out of 3,500 tanks and 4,400 out of 13,600 infantry fighting vehicles and armoured personnel carriers.
Russia continues to suffer high losses in Avdiivka, a city it has been trying intensively to capture since early October.
US National Security Council spokesperson Adrienne Watson reportedly said Russian forces had suffered more than 13,000 casualties there in nine weeks.
Ukrainian estimates run higher. The commander of Ukrainian ground forces, Oleksandr Syrskyi, said in November alone Ukrainian forces “destroyed” 11,000 Russian troops and 130 tanks in the east.
To regain the initiative in the east, Russian forces were sending troops in en masse, he said. “In the east, the loss of Russian casualties is approximately eight times higher than the loss of the Ukrainian defence forces. Despite this, the Russian occupiers are betting on human resources,” he said.
Zelenskyy did not go home from his overseas visit entirely empty-handed. The US Pentagon announced $200m in new weapons, including air-to-air missiles on December 6. Meanwhile, following a summit with leaders of Nordic countries on Wednesday, Norway has promised additional aid worth $275m. And Denmark said it would seek parliamentary approval for $1.1bn in new funds.
The biggest package may have come from the United Kingdom, which together with Norway, announced a new maritime capability coalition to strengthen the Ukrainian navy. The UK will provide two Sandown-class minehunters from its own fleet to help protect Ukraine’s grain corridor in the Black Sea.
Together with Norway, it is to provide 20 Viking amphibious vehicles and 23 landing craft. “Ukraine’s economy continues to be impacted by Putin’s blockade in the Black Sea, which has significantly reduced the country’s ability to move vital exports by sea,” the British government said in an announcement on Monday.
Is Ukraine on the path to EU membership?
On Wednesday, the European Court of Human Rights held a Grand Chamber hearing in the case of Ukraine v Russia, in which Ukraine has accused Russia of human rights abuses in Crimea. Russia, however, failed to attend.
Ukraine has four cases pending at the court against Russia, including one which has been filed jointly with the Netherlands.
Ukraine might have a political prize to collect this year in Europe, where government leaders have been working to issue Ukraine an official invitation to start membership talks when they hold a summit on Thursday and Friday.
“The EU wants to send a message that it continues to be interested in Ukraine,” Greek conservative parliamentarian Angelos Syrigos told Al Jazeera citing sources in the European Commission and European Parliament.
“It is highly likely that there will be a green light for the start of membership talks at the next European Council summit. It wants to send a political message to Russia,” Syrigos said.
“There’s a feeling it’s going to happen, that there’s no going backwards,” agreed Socialist European parliamentarian Nikos Papandreou.
“The whole community has been voting for Ukraine across party lines, except some people on the extreme left and the extreme right – the people who said Ukraine will only last a few weeks,” he said.
“[Fellow MEPs] don’t think there will be another chance because we don’t know what the political powers will be [next year]. It’s now or never.”
Europe will hold a parliamentary election next June.
Orban – a possible deal breaker
On Sunday, Zelenskyy had what he later described as a “frank” conversation with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has emerged as a possible deal breaker. That was on the day of the inauguration of Argentina’s President Javier Milei, which Zelenskyy attended in Buenos Aires, alongside the leaders of Paraguay, Uruguay and Ecuador, whom he also met.
On Wednesday, Orban reaffirmed his opposition to inviting Ukraine to start membership talks with the EU. “Considering the numbers, economic analyses and taking it seriously that talks (with Ukraine) would aim to grant membership … then we must say that this thought at the moment is absurd, ridiculous and not serious,” Orban said.
Leading EU members want the invitation to go out this week. Spain, which holds the six-month rotating presidency of the European Council, is set on getting it done.
“I kicked off the Spanish presidency with a trip to Kyiv and I hope to close it with the opening of accession negotiations with this country,” Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez told a plenary session of the European Parliament.
“I cannot imagine, I don’t even want to talk about the devastating consequences that will occur should the [European] Council fail to make this decision,” said Ukrainian foreign minister Dmytro Kuleba, calling it “the mother of all decisions”.