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Ukraine’s Zelensky appears increasingly embattled as U.S. backing wavers – WP

Ukraine’s Zelensky appears increasingly embattled as U.S. backing wavers 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv in May 2023. Ukraine says it is hopeful that U.S. lawmakers will approve new military aid for the country, despite Senate Republicans blocking a package on Wednesday. (Ed Ram for The Washington Post) 
KYIV — Anxiety is mounting in Ukraine as disagreements in Washington continue to stall billions of dollars of urgently needed wartime funding — aid that officials here say is crucial to keep the country running as the war with Russia grinds on.

The strain in the relationship between Kyiv and Washington comes as internal political divisions have resurfaced for President Volodymyr Zelensky, with fears over the potential gaps in funding feeding into other tensions in the capital. Relations between officials who have previously maintained a public appearance of unity are now openly fraying.

A delegation of top Ukrainian officials visited Washington this week to plead for more funding for both the military and the national budget — calls that appear to have gone unheard as Senate Republicans once again blocked the proposed aid, which has been tied to controversial border control measures.

The U.S. flag hangs above a street in Kyiv on Friday. (Ed Ram for The Washington Post)

The Senate no-show

Zelensky was due to virtually address a House and Senate briefing this week but canceled at the last minute as the meeting descended into a chaotic shouting match about U.S. border policy. His cancellation was highly unusual for a leader who has not typically turned down opportunities to advocate for Ukraine, prompting questions over whether he backed out on the advice of his Ukrainian colleagues or U.S. officials.

Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States, told a Ukrainian television broadcast that “nothing catastrophic actually happened” and added that “precisely because they discussed not only Ukraine’s issues, but also internal issues, we did not participate.”

However, the difference between passing the billions in aid for Ukraine by the end of this year and doing so in January is critical for Ukraine, said Oleksandra Ustinova, a parliamentarian and head of the Holos party faction.

About a third of Ukraine’s budget comes from U.S. financial assistance, she said, and if that money doesn’t come through, Kyiv might not be able to pay basic salaries for doctors, first-responders and others.

“It’s literally going to be a huge problem because if we do not survive as a state, we cannot win a war,” Ustinova said.

She also pointed to Ukraine’s dependence on U.S.-produced munitions for air defense systems. Ukrainians are expecting a difficult winter with Russia likely to again target its energy infrastructure with missiles and drones to leave people without power.

In her most recent trip to Washington, Ustinova sensed a growing fatigue in support for the war. She said she was often asked, “What is the plan?” and “How long will this take?”

“And what I’m telling them is that unfortunately the plan we have cannot be covered by the existing quantities of weapons,” she said. “It’s difficult for us to plan something when we’re lacking ammunition.”

On Wednesday, the State Department announced an additional $175 million in security assistance to Ukraine, including air defense munitions and ammunition but warned that without congressional action “this will be one of the last security assistance packages we can provide to Ukraine.”

Snow covers a sign for the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv on Friday. (Ed Ram for The Washington Post)

Staying in the limelight

Some officials, though, remained optimistic that allies in Washington would step up before the end of the year. Yulia Svyrydenko, the first deputy prime minister and economy minister, who visited Washington last month, said she hopes the aid package will be announced by Christmas.

“We have repeatedly heard from our partners that they will continue to support us, and they have never broken their promise. We have no reason to doubt the reliability of our partnership,” she said.

There is still the challenge of staying at the forefront of allies’ minds, however. Tymofiy Mylovanov, head of the Kyiv School of Economics and a former government minister, said global attention shifting to Israel’s military operations in Gaza and Ukraine’s “overhyped” counteroffensive not meeting expectations have both contributed to slumping support from both the United States and the European Union.

“Will Ukraine fall because of this? No, unlikely,” Mylovanov said. “But will many more people die? Yes. Will that limit the ability of Ukraine to have capable troops? Yes. It’s all attritional. It’s a long war, obviously — now everyone has come to realize that, including me.”

Friction at the top

Trying to ascribe blame for why the counteroffensive in Ukraine’s eastern and southern regions wasn’t more successful has also stoked political rifts at a moment when Ukraine might want to appear to its Western partners as unified, he said.

“Things are tough, so everyone’s on edge,” Mylovanov said. “From the rational perspective of course, that’s the wrong thing to do.”

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko said in a recent interview with Germany’s Der Spiegel that Ukraine is turning toward authoritarianism, adding, “At some point we will no longer be any different from Russia, where everything depends on the whim of one man.”

Then Petro Poroshenko, who served as president of Ukraine before Zelensky and is now leader of the opposition in parliament, was prevented by authorities from leaving the country a week ago in what analysts view as a political slap from Zelensky’s administration.

Poroshenko claimed that his trip abroad, which included a trip to the United States to meet with lawmakers and other officials, was intended to lobby support for Ukraine. The internal intelligence agency, the SBU, which answers to the presidential office, said Saturday that it had blocked Poroshenko’s departure to prevent his trip from being used for propaganda purposes by Russia.

Ukrainian and U.S. officials have also noted friction between Zelensky and his commander in chief, Gen. Valery Zaluzhny. The 50-year-old Zaluzhny rarely makes public statements, and though he’s never revealed any political ambitions, his popularity in Ukraine rivals Zelensky’s.

Analysts said that if he chose to run for president in the future, he would present the biggest challenge to Zelensky. The Ukrainian legislation prevents elections from being held during martial law, and Zelensky has said that he personally is against holding them while the country remains at war.

People take part in a protest calling for “Voluntary demobilization after 18 months of military service”, in Kyiv on Friday. (Ed Ram for The Washington Post)

A ‘critical moment’

Tension between the two increased after Zaluzhny asserted in an interview with the Economist that the war had reached a “stalemate” and that “there will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough” for Ukraine on the front line like in successful counteroffensives last year.

Zelensky publicly rebuked Zaluzhny’s “stalemate” assessment, and in the weeks since, there have been changes made to the country’s military leadership, replacing the commanders of special forces and medical forces. Both personnel changes were made by the Ministry of Defense, bypassing Zaluzhny despite the commanders reporting to him.

A member of parliament in Zelensky’s Servant of the People party, Mariana Bezuhla has been repeatedly criticizing Zaluzhny on Facebook, polling followers on if he should be replaced. Klitschko and Poroshenko have expressed support for the general.

Defense Minister Rustem Umerov, who was in Washington this week, defended Zelensky on Fox News, saying Klitschko’s “comments indicate the beginning of the political season.”

He also said that resorting to negotiations with Russia would be a “shame for the civilized world” and only encourage violent authoritarianism.

Many in Ukraine fear that they could be forced to negotiate with Russia if Western partners, including the United States, perceive the battlefield as having stalled. Zelensky has long insisted that the only acceptable outcome of the war will be to return Ukraine to its borders established in 1991.

President Biden has been pushing for the Senate to quickly come to a resolution before the end of the year, scolding lawmakers this week for thus far failing to approve aid for Ukraine. “History is going to judge harshly those who turned their backs on freedom’s cause,” he said after the vote failed to pass Wednesday.

Andriy Yermak, a top aide to Zelensky who was in Washington this week, said in remarks at the U.S. Institute of Peace that U.S. support remains crucial to Ukraine’s fight. Without it, he said, “it will be difficult … for the people to really survive.”

Olena Tregub, a member of the Anti-Corruption Council of the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense, which monitors defense procurements, said that she has been told by “people involved in defense procurement” that “for the front line, the moment is critical now.” She said the situation on the front line “is maybe worse than [Ukraine’s] partners estimate, because the signals definitely are not good,” as she has heard “a lot of small stories here and there when our military were lacking things.”

“Even though the majority of Ukrainian society — they probably still believe that everything will be solved and it’s just like a bargaining game, internal political game, happening in the U.S.,” she said. “But I really fear the situation will get out of control. And there is no plan B. … If Congress fails to pass the funding, then I don’t know — it will be very, very negative for Ukraine.”

Kamila Hrabchuk contributed to this report.

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