The Memo: Zelensky faces tough task in Washington as GOP skepticism grows

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will travel to Washington on Thursday at a moment when continued support from his most important ally looks imperiled.

The Capitol Hill battle over whether, and how, to avoid a government shutdown has put a spotlight on the increasing reluctance, at least among some Republicans, to maintain American backing for Ukraine at its current pace.

Some express a desire for greater scrutiny of the money being dispatched to the Eastern European nation.

“Tell us what you’re doing with the money, and let’s have a debate on the floor about this funding and not ramming it down our throats,” Rep. Mike Garcia (R-Calif.) told CBS News.

Others have issued starker warnings and offered thinly veiled criticism of Zelensky himself.

“There’s no money in the House right now for Ukraine,” Rep. Byron Donalds (R-Fla.) told reporters Tuesday. “It’s not a good time for him to be here, quite frankly.”

There are clear signs of an erosion of public support, too. A CNN/SSRS poll last month found a majority of Americans opposed to Congress authorizing further support to Ukraine, 55 percent to 45 percent.

The share of Americans who said that the U.S. should “do more” to help Ukraine fell to 48 percent in that poll, outpaced by the 51 percent who said it had already “done enough.”

As CNN’s report noted, a comparable poll soon after Russia’s February 2022 invasion found 62 percent of Americans saying their nation should “do more.”

As for Zelensky, his image has increasingly fallen victim to the polarization that is rife in American politics.

An Economist/YouGov national poll conducted at the end of last month found that Republicans were approximately evenly split on whether they had a favorable or unfavorable view of Ukraine’s leader.

Thirty-seven percent had a favorable opinion, but 35 percent viewed him unfavorably.

By contrast, only 9 percent of Democrats had an unfavorable view of Zelensky, while 60 percent saw him in a favorable light.

Some Republican critics of the Ukrainian president have grabbed headlines with especially vivid attacks.

Earlier this year, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) told the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) that Zelensky “wants our sons and daughters to go die in Ukraine.”

Following Zelensky’s first appearance before Congress in late 2022, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) accused those who rapturously applauded of engaging in a “North Korea-style performance.”

But even beyond fiery soundbites, some American voters are clearly balking at the sheer sums involved in supporting Ukraine.

President Biden is currently seeking congressional approval for another $24 billion, which would bring total U.S. aid to Ukraine to $135 billion.

Meanwhile, a much-vaunted Ukrainian counteroffensive has had modest results, and there is no obvious end to the war in sight.

The overall situation is sparking concern among those who back more U.S. support for Ukraine.

“I’m uneasy about it,” said Robert Wilkie, who served as the U.S. secretary of Veterans Affairs and under secretary of Defense during the Trump administration.

Wilkie contended that President Biden had not made the case sharply enough to an American audience about how vital it is to thwart Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist ambitions. If Russia prevailed, he argued, it would be a massive victory not just for Putin but, indirectly, for China.

Wilkie also contended that there was a problem with Republicans who back aid “feeling like they are standing on their own.”

Others argue that the debate over Ukraine has increasingly fallen victim to the dynamics of an intensifying 2024 presidential race.

Joel Rubin, who served as a deputy assistant secretary of State during the Obama administration, contended that the “window” for further aid to Ukraine was just about open now — and closing fast.

“The reality is that the further we get into the presidential cycle, the harder it’s going to be, because Donald Trump is going to win this primary overwhelmingly and he is staking out a position that is hostile to Ukraine.”

Trump has promised, in vague terms, that he could end the war in Ukraine within 24 hours if he were reelected president. He has implied that Ukraine would have to give up some territory in such a settlement.

Rubin, who is also a candidate in the Democratic primary in Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, added that if Trump indeed becomes the nominee, “That is going to really hurt congressional Republicans, because the last thing they are going to want to do is look like they are supporting a policy that hurts their nominee. So they are going to be very, very nervous about supporting aid for Ukraine.”

Zelensky’s political skills have been underestimated in the past.

But he faces a politically complicated conundrum as he arrives to make his case.

“As far as I can tell, enthusiasm — unfortunately — for American assistance to Ukraine has diminished and has become more partisan, like everything in American politics these days,” said Allan Lichtman, a professor of history at American University.

“It becomes partisan, of course, because it is so closely associated with President Biden,” Lichtman added. “Republicans, no matter what, are intent on opposing anything with President Biden’s name on it.”

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage.

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