Zelensky reaches out to Republicans amid Biden’s political troubles

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Ukraine’s forces have been hamstrung by President Joe Biden’s restrictions on the use of U.S. weapons to strike Russian military targets, according to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“When Putin decided to break everything, everything dear to us, we all acted as one… and we did survive. Then the world saw that Putin could lose and democracy can win — can win, even when it seemed impossible,” Zelensky said at the Reagan Institute on the sidelines of the NATO summit in Washington, D.C. “Then, what happened now? When did it step into the shadows? When did one start thinking that it’s better to delay than act — that partial solutions are better than better than victory?”

Zelensky arrived in Washington, D.C., as Biden sought to face down a potential revolt by congressional Democrats dismayed by his aged appearance in last month’s debate with former President Donald Trump and as U.S. allies try to divine the implications for U.S. foreign policy of Trump’s possible return to the White House. Zelensky, for his part, used his appearance at the Reagan Institute to pitch Republicans on the idea that the war in Ukraine can be won — if American leaders cast off the risk-averse policies that have curtailed U.S. military assistance to Ukraine under Biden.

“We can protect our cities from Russian guided bombs if American leadership [takes] a step forward and allows us to destroy Russian military aircrafts on their bases,” Zelensky said. “And we can significantly limit Russian actions in southern Ukraine and push the occupier out of there if American leadership assists us with the necessary deep strike capabilities against Russian military and logistics in our Ukrainian Crimea.”

With Trump’s victory in the 2024 elections seeming more likely in the wake of the first presidential debate, Ukrainian officials have to face the prospect that Trump would attempt to compel them to surrender territory to Russian President Vladimir Putin in order to end the fighting. Some of Trump’s allies, such as Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH), have argued for just that outcome on the grounds that it is “fantastical” to believe that Ukraine can recover the occupied territory. 

“The Biden administration has no viable plan for the Ukrainians to win this war,” Vance wrote in an April opinion piece for the New York Times. “The sooner Americans confront this truth, the sooner we can fix this mess and broker for peace.”

Zelensky framed his remarks with the acknowledgment that “everyone is waiting for November,” including Putin. But he also offered a critique of Biden that, however veiled by diplomatic courtesy, offers Republicans an alternative approach.

“How much longer can Putin last? The answer is right here, in Washington — your leadership, your actions, your choices,” Zelensky said. “Together with America, the world is capable of doing the right things. … America, as you know, is too great for small deeds. … America can be great every day.” 

The wartime leader paired that claim with a statement of gratitude for Biden’s recent decision to loosen the restrictions on the usage of U.S. weapons to repel Russian attacks on Kharkiv, a major Ukrainian border city. And yet, his rhetoric evoked the sense, common in Ukraine and among NATO’s central and Eastern European members, that Biden’s team fears that too much Ukrainian success on the battlefield would prompt Putin to use nuclear weapons or broaden the war.

“He has to walk a tight line, but he certainly wants to shame everyone and anyone out of incrementalism — the Democrats, the Republicans, the Americans, the Europeans,” a senior European diplomat told the Washington Examiner as Zelensky made his case.

Current U.S. policy, according to Zelensky, prevents Ukrainian forces from using U.S. weapons to strike Russian forces further than about 93 miles from the Ukrainian border. He said Ukrainian forces were allowed to strike Russian bases within about 310 miles, they could counter the “guided bombs” that Russian forces have used to devastating effect in recent months.

“If we can use such weapon on [that] distance … we can manage this problem,” he told Fox News’s Bret Baier during a Q&A session after his speech.

Zelensky said restrictions apply even in Crimea, which is sovereign Ukrainian territory under international law.

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“We can’t use everything [we are given] everywhere in Crimea,” Zelensky said. 

It was an unusually thorough account of Ukraine’s frustrations with the restrictions. “It’s his best shot of explaining the problem to this audience this year,” the senior European diplomat said.

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