Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday, Dec. 11, 2023, spoke to U.S. military officers at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Monday, Dec. 11, 2023, spoke to U.S. military officers at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C. (Defense Department)

WASHINGTON — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked the students and faculty of the National Defense University on Monday to put themselves in the shoes of his country’s troops as they await reinforcements in their fight against Russia.

“Every one of you here understands what it means for a soldier to wait for munitions, waiting for weeks, months, not knowing if support will come at all,” Zelenskyy said. “Every one of you with command experience knows what it means when instead of moving forward you’re just watching, waiting for armor or equipment while your enemy is satisfied and preparing for assaults.”

That is the situation that Ukraine’s military faces as U.S. aid for Ukraine’s war effort dwindles and a divided Congress remains locked in a stalemate over a $61 billion measure that would keep Ukraine from succumbing to Russian forces, Zelenskyy said.

“Any of you with a son or daughter in a combat zone just wouldn’t get it if they were told that protecting lives could wait because there’s a little more debating [to do],” he said.

Zelenskyy’s appearance at the university marked the start of a two-day visit to Washington, D.C., aimed at rallying flagging Western support for his nation. He delivered his speech to military officers but his words were pointedly aimed at lawmakers in the halls of Congress a few miles away.

“Let me be frank: if there’s anyone inspired by unresolved issues on Capitol Hill, it’s just [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and his sick clique,” he said.

The war in Ukraine has driven a deep wedge between Democrats and Republicans, with Republicans seeking to tie any future funding for the country to changes in U.S. immigration policy that Democrats oppose.

The likelihood of Ukraine securing additional American aid anytime soon diminished significantly last week when Senate Republicans blocked a $111 billion emergency spending bill that would have provided about $50 billion in assistance to Ukraine’s military.

The collapse of the legislation followed warnings to lawmakers from the White House that the U.S. will run out of funding by the end of the year to send weapons and assistance to Ukraine.

Zelenskyy will meet Tuesday with members of Congress in an urgent bid to shore up support before lawmakers depart for a holiday recess on Friday. He is set to meet with senators as well as House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., who leads an increasingly skeptical Republican conference.

On Monday, Zelenskyy invoked the legacy of former President Ronald Reagan, a hero to many Republicans, when speaking about the gravity of the present moment. He said Reagan’s role in the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 ushered in an era of freedom and democracy that Ukraine is now trying to uphold.

“We can show our children, grandchildren what real confidence is, as was shown to us when in Berlin, the great words were spoken: ‘Tear down this wall,’ ” Zelenskyy said. “We need no less confidence now than President Reagan had then.”

The Ukrainian leader also compared his country’s fight for its sovereignty to World War II, pointing out America joined the war in Europe exactly 82 years ago. He made the case that Ukrainians are sacrificing themselves to prevent a larger conflict that could force American service members into battle.

“Now, it’s without American boots on European ground defending freedom against Russia’s invasion,” he said. Instead, American Bradley Fighting Vehicles, High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems, 155mm-caliber artillery, Army Tactical Missile Systems and F-16 fighter jets “can get the job done in Europe.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Monday reiterated America’s “unshakable” commitment to providing Ukraine with its battlefield needs. He said the students at the National Defense University, a Pentagon institution that trains national security leaders, is studying the example set by Ukraine.

Zelenskky was living proof, Austin said, that a single person’s leadership can “help rally an embattled democracy and inspire the free world and change the course of history.” He then linked Ukraine’s fate to the trajectory of global security in the 21st century and alluded to the battle being waged on Capitol Hill.

“Dr. [Martin Luther] King once said that the ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy,” Austin said. “We’re living in just such a time and we must all decide on where we stand.”

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Svetlana Shkolnikova covers Congress for Stars and Stripes. She previously worked with the House Foreign Affairs Committee as an American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow and spent four years as a general assignment reporter for The Record newspaper in New Jersey and the USA Today Network. A native of Belarus, she has also reported from Moscow, Russia.

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