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Biden welcomes Ukraine's Zelenskyy to White House as some Republicans question aid

Zelenskyy visits Washington, meets with Biden
Ukraine's Zelenskyy visits Washington for meetings with Biden, Congress 02:03

Washington — Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visited Washington, D.C., on Thursday for the second time since Russia launched an assault on his country more than 18 months ago, thanking the U.S. for billions of dollars' worth of support while stressing the need for more aid to turn the tide of the war.

As Zelenskyy visited, the Biden administration announced hundreds of millions of dollars in additional security aid for the country, including for air defense munitions, as winter approaches. The Ukrainian president received a warm welcome from President Biden and most members of Congress, but he faced skepticism from some Republican lawmakers who oppose sending more weapons and money to the country.

Zelenskyy began his visit with meetings behind closed doors with members of the House and Senate on Capitol Hill. He then headed to the Pentagon before arriving at the White House for a meeting with Mr. Biden, which he called "very important." 

President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy walk through the colonnade to the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 21, 2023.
President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy walk through the colonnade to the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, D.C., on Sept. 21, 2023. DOUG MILLS/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The new package of military assistance includes "significant" air defense capabilities to help Ukraine "harden" its defenses, said national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Specifically, the additional security assistance will provide $128 million worth of arms and equipment from Pentagon stocks, and $197 million in arms and equipment under previously directed drawdowns, according to the State Department.

But Ukraine will need even more, and Zelenskyy had the opportunity to make his case in person.

In the Oval Office, Mr. Biden told Zelenskyy the people of Ukraine "have shown enormous bravery" and "inspired the world." Zelenskyy, speaking in English, said he had "frank" and "constructive" conversations with members of Congress, and said he looks forward to discussing military support from the U.S., "with a special emphasis on air defense." Zelenskyy emphasized his gratitude to the U.S. for its past and continued assistance.

"I met with U.S. Senate Majority Leader @SenSchumer, U.S. Senate Republican Leader @LeaderMcConnell, and U.S. Senators," Zelenskyy said in a tweet Thursday afternoon."I am grateful to the U.S. Senate for helping our warriors free Ukrainian land of Russian invaders. Support for Ukraine means strengthening NATO's eastern flank. We discussed the battlefield situation and priority defense needs, such as air defense. I hope that the U.S. Congress will continue to take important decisions to provide financial assistance to Ukraine. Oversight, transparency, and accountability for all the aid is absolutely important and imperative. We also discussed the Peace Formula, global coalition in its support, and Ukraine's post-war recovery."

GOP skeptics on Capitol Hill

Zelenskyy encountered a slightly different environment on Capitol Hill than he did in December, when Democrats still controlled the House. Aid to Ukraine has become a sticking point among Republicans in their efforts to fund the government and avoid a shutdown by the end of the month.

A number of Republicans in the GOP-controlled lower chamber are skeptical, if not vocally critical, of the United States' continued financial assistance of Ukraine, even as Mr. Biden and Republicans like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell have emphasized that assistance is critical. The White House has asked lawmakers to approve another $24 billion in aid, a number that fallen flat among Republicans in Congress.

After meeting with Zelenskyy, GOP Sen. Josh Hawley said he remains firmly against additional funding for Ukraine. 

CBS News asked Republican Sen. Thom Tillis of North Carolina if Zelenskyy made any appeals to senators like Hawley who are skeptical of Ukraine aid. 

"I don't think so," Tillis responded. "And quite honestly, I don't believe you can convince Josh Hawley to change his opinion. So why waste the time? Go focus on the vast majority of the members out there to support it."

Democratic Sen. Chris Coons of Connecticut said Zelenskyy was clear that if the U.S. steps away from supporting Ukraine, the Russians will win. 

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gestures while walking with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at the Capitol on Sept. 21, 2023.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy gestures while walking with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell at the Capitol on Sept. 21, 2023. Win McNamee/Getty Images

In the White House briefing room, Sullivan downplayed fraying support from some Republicans, saying he thinks bipartisan support for Ukraine will continue to remain strong. Sullivan also encouraged Americans to step back and consider what Ukraine has achieved with U.S. support.

"Number one — Kyiv stands, Kharkiv stands, Kherson stands. Major cities of Ukraine are not under Russian domination and occupation today because first and foremost, of the bravery of the Ukrainian soldiers on the front lines and the Ukrainian people who are supporting them, but also in no small part because of the material assistance we have provided. And that is a significant fact," Sullivan said.

"Second, Ukraine is in fact taking back territory," he added. "It is doing so methodically, step by step, and the weapons that we have provided have allowed them to de-occupy more territory in the last three months than the Russians were able to take in eight months over the course of its fall and winter offensive last year. So we will keep at this." 

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy said Zelenskyy asked to address a joint session of Congress, but McCarthy said there wasn't enough time — a signal of where Ukraine stands with the GOP-led House. 

"I think the best part is sit down walk through the question of what is the plan for victory, what is the plan in the field, the accountability issues that a lot of members have questions, just walk through that," McCarthy said before meeting with Zelenskyy. 

Zelenskyy's Washington visit follows his first in-person appearance at the United Nations since Russia invaded in February 2022. Both Zelenskyy and Mr. Biden told the U.N. General Assembly that Ukraine's security is integral to international security. 

"If we allow Ukraine to be carved up, is the independence of any nation secure?" Mr. Biden asked during his UNGA speech.

In a recent interview with CBS News' "60 Minutes," Zelenskyy warned that world order is at stake. 

"If Ukraine falls, what will happen in 10 years? Just think about it. If [the Russians] reach Poland, what's next? A Third World War?" Zelenskyy told Scott Pelley in the interview that aired Sunday. "We're defending the values of the whole world. And these are Ukrainian people who are paying the highest price. We are truly fighting for our freedom, we are dying. We are not fiction, we are not a book. We are fighting for real with a nuclear state that threatens to destroy the world."

Jack Turman contributed to this report.

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