Status: 22/09/2023, 06:34 a.m.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife Olena Zelenska speak at the National Archives building in Washington. © Stephanie Scarbrough/AP
There is one word Volodymyr Zelensky says particularly often during this visit to the United States: thank you. The Ukrainian says thank you in the White House, in the Senate, in the House of Representatives - and in a speech to the people of the country.
Washington - Volodymyr Zelensky stands next to his wife Olena in a large domed hall at the National Archives in Washington. The Ukrainian president, as usual, in an olive-green military shirt, his wife in a light-colored blouse with her hair pinned up. The two take turns stepping up to the microphone and speaking to the invited guests, but above all to the American people. Their central message: Thank you.
"There is not a single soul in Ukraine who does not feel gratitude to you, America," Zelensky says. "To you who help us - not because you have to, but because your heart does not allow it otherwise." The 45-year-old adds: "That's humanity." This is what America and Ukraine are all about.
Zelensky thanks the US
The National Archives sits halfway between the White House and Congress — the two places where Zelensky rushed from one meeting to the next throughout the day to secure further support for his country. Right in the middle, the Ukrainian is now trying to appeal not to politicians, but to the people of the country.
In the room are Ukrainian youth whose war injuries are being treated in the United States, doctors who care for wounded Ukrainians in US hospitals, activists and other people who have initiated fundraising campaigns for Ukraine. One by one, Zelensky calls the helpers to the stage, honors them and speaks again and again of his gratitude and the big hearts of the Americans. "If America didn't have people like that, there wouldn't be any freedom in the world," he says. "I thank everyone, every American, everyone in the world who helps - for every life saved in Ukraine."
Olena Zelenska says never before has her country had so much reason to be grateful. In between, she takes several deep breaths, seems nervous. Zelensky also seems more thoughtful, more withdrawn than usual. This evening, it is not the combative war president who speaks, but an almost humble head of government. Zelensky seems painfully aware that it has become much harder to convince people in the US and elsewhere in the world that they should pump money on a grand scale into a war whose end is nowhere near in sight.
Skepticism among Republicans
At the end of last year, Zelensky last visited the US capital. Shortly before Christmas, he was received like a hero, spoke to both chambers of the US Congress to the cheers of parliamentarians and took home a huge military package worth 1.85 billion US dollars (1.73 billion euros). Nine months later, some war-weariness has set in. This time, the Republicans, who now call the shots in the U.S. House of Representatives, deny him a major speech in parliament. And the new military aid that the U.S. government promised him during this visit is only a fraction of the package he took with him at the time.
There is considerable skepticism in parts of the Republican Party as to whether vast amounts of American taxpayers' money should continue to flow into repelling the Russian invasion. Since the beginning of the war, the US has provided almost 44 billion dollars in military aid to Kyiv alone - more than any other country. True, the majority of Republicans in Congress are behind further support for Ukraine. Above all, however, right-wing hardliners are against it. "I will not support that even a single cent goes to Ukraine," said Republican Senator Roger Marshall shortly before Zelensky's visit - and announced that he would boycott an appointment with the Ukrainian president in Congress.
Other Republicans have also complained in recent days that America can no longer pull out the checkbook for Kiev with an open end. It's an election campaign in the US, and with each passing day as the next presidential election in November 2024 approaches, populist messages of this kind are likely to increase.
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And so, during his visit to Washington, Zelensky rushes from one appointment to another: in the Senate, in the House of Representatives, in the Ministry of Defense, in the White House. Democratic President Joe Biden pledges further support for Ukraine and seeks encouragement: "The American people, Democrats and Republicans alike, families across our country, understand what Ukraine is fighting for," he says. For the time being, however, he is not fulfilling his Ukrainian counterpart's new request for ATACMS missiles.
Meetings behind closed doors
And in Congress, Zelensky has a lot of convincing to do. Behind closed doors, he explains the situation on the battlefield to senators and deputies. There, too, he expresses gratitude, as members of Congress report after the meetings. But he also makes dramatic announcements. Zelensky had a "powerful message" with him, writes Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal after the meeting on Platform X. Thus, the Ukrainian told the senators: "They gave money, we gave life."
In the first months of the war, the Ukrainian government was sometimes very brash and, after the promise of one weapon system from the West, immediately asked for the next. Initially, the U.S. government always defended the demanding appearance by saying that those who were in the middle of a war and fighting for their existence could never have enough weapons and ammunition from their own point of view. But in the meantime, it has also made it clear that the billions in support for Ukraine need a lot of communicative support in order not to alienate citizens and voters.
In July, Biden's National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Vilnius, reacted irritably to criticism from a Ukrainian activist who complained that her country would not be accepted into the military alliance. The American people are making every effort to stand by Ukraine, Sullivan countered. "And I think the American people deserve some gratitude."
The message has been received. Zelensky says thank you dozens of times during his short visit to the US capital. And during his appearance at the National Archives, he concludes with these words: "Thank you for everything. Thank you for your support. Ukraine will never forget this." That same evening, he travels on to Canada to campaign for support there as well. Dpa