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'Your money is not charity': Ukraine's Zelenskyy appeals for bipartisan support from US Congress

'Your money is not charity': Ukraine's Zelenskyy appeals for bipartisan support from US Congress

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy addresses a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on Dec 21, 2022. Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, listen at the back. (Photo: AP/Carolyn Kaster)

WASHINGTON: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told the United States Congress on Wednesday (Dec 21) that the tens of billions of dollars of aid it had approved to help it fight a Russian invasion was not charity, but an investment in global security.

In his first visit out of his country since the war began in February, Zelenskyy told lawmakers in the soaring House of Representatives chamber that he hoped they would continue to support Ukraine on a bipartisan basis - a major point as Republicans are due to take the majority in the House on Jan 3.

"Your money is not charity," Zelenskyy said, clad in the khaki fatigues that have been his public uniform throughout the 300 days of conflict. "It is an investment in the global security and democracy."

Following a meeting at the White House with Democratic President Joe Biden, Zelenskyy's speech needed to resonate with House Republicans, who have voiced increasing skepticism about continuing to send so much aid to Ukraine.

Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrives to address a joint meeting of the US Congress in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington on Dec 21, 2022. (Photo: Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein)

Zelenskyy's arrival was greeted with multiple raucous ovations in the nearly full chamber. Three members held up a large Ukrainian flag as he walked in.

He also presented US Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and US Vice President Kamala Harris with a battle-scarred Ukrainian flag from front-line soldiers. Pelosi then presented Zelenskyy with a framed American flag which he held overhead to display to the Congress.

"It is a great honor for me to be at the US Congress and speak to you and all Americans. Against all doom and gloom scenarios, Ukraine did not fall. Ukraine is alive and kicking," said Zelenskyy.

"We defeated Russia in the battle for the minds of the world," he said.

Zelenskyy joined a long list of world leaders to address joint meetings of the Senate and House, a tradition that began in 1874 with a visit by Hawaiian King Kalakaua and included almost legendary wartime visits by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, as well as kings, queens and one pope.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and US Vice President Kamala Harris hold a Ukrainian flag presented by Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, given to him by defenders of Bakhmut, during a joint meeting of US Congress in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington on Dec 21, 2022. (Photo: Reuters/Michael A McCoy)
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy receives a US flag during a joint meeting of the US Congress in the House Chamber of the US Capitol in Washington on Dec 21, 2022. (Photo: Reuters/Evelyn Hockstein)

House members and senators from both parties leaped repeatedly to their feet to cheer parts of Zelenskyy's speech in English such as, "Ukraine holds its lines and will never surrender," as he likened his country's battle against Moscow's forces to great battles of World War II and even the American Revolution.

There are no signs of peace talks to end the war and both Russia and Ukraine have signaled a willingness to keep fighting, although Zelenskyy said he discussed a 10-point Ukrainian peace formula with Biden.

"I'm glad that President Biden supported our peace initiative today. Each of you today ladies and gentlemen can assist in the implementation to ensure that American leadership remains solid, bicameral, and bipartisan," Zelenskyy said to the lawmakers.

PURSE STRINGS

Planning for Zelenskyy's speech began in October, according to an aide to Democratic House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, when she met with Ruslan Stefanchuk, chairman of Ukraine's parliament, the Verkhovna Rada. Pelosi was attending the First Parliamentary Summit of the International Crimea Platform in Zagreb, Croatia, at the time.

Exactly 300 days after Russian troops invaded and amid intensified rocket attacks that have left Ukrainian cities in ruins, Zelenskyy arrived knowing that the Senate and House control America's purse strings.

His timing was perfect, as Congress is on the verge of approving an additional US$44.9 billion in new emergency military and economic assistance, on top of about US$50 billion already sent to Ukraine this year.

Daniel Fried, former US ambassador to Poland and a fellow at the Atlantic Council, said Zelenskyy's trip demonstrated that he and Biden share a belief that the US, despite its faults, is leader of the free world.

Zelenskyy, Fried said, "didn’t go to Berlin, Brussels, London or Paris" for his first trip abroad since the start of the war.

The 44-year-old Zelenskyy, a former comedian and actor, also visited Washington on a day that the Senate overwhelmingly confirmed a new ambassador to Russia.

The optics of Zelenskyy's welcome as a defender of democracy carried a message far deeper than military aid. It was meant to signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin that the US and its NATO allies remain steadfastly behind Ukraine, despite recent signs of impatience among some Republican lawmakers over the rising cost.

For Zelenskyy, whose wartime olive fatigues have become globally recognised, the House overlooked a rule that normally requires men to wear a jacket and tie inside the chamber. 

Source: Reuters/rc

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