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Diplomacy Watch: Zelensky goes on the road

Diplomacy Watch: Zelensky goes on the road

In a world-spanning trip, Ukraine’s leader ran into a series of obstacles blocking future Western aid

Reporting | QiOSK

Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky had an unusually packed travel schedule this week, with stops in Argentina, the United States, and Norway. His message was clear: If Ukraine has any chance of pushing Russia out of all of its territory, it will only come from sustained Western support.

But Zelensky’s requests for aid earned a much different response than they did at Christmas time last year, when confidence in Kyiv’s military was at a historic high. This time around, the Ukrainian leader found himself shadow-boxing with right-wing skeptics of Ukraine aid at every turn.

In Buenos Aires, where Zelensky attended the Sunday inauguration of President Javier Milei, news cameras caught the frustrated leader in “an intense-looking conversation” with Viktor Orban, Hungary’s prime minister and the primary obstacle for Kyiv’s bid to join the European Union.

Back in Washington on Tuesday, Zelensky faced down Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), the primary obstacle for any future U.S. aid to Ukraine. Johnson ripped into President Joe Biden’s approach to the war after meeting with Zelensky.

“What the Biden administration seems to be asking for is billions of additional dollars with no appropriate oversight, no clear strategy to win and with none of the answers that I think the American people are owed,” Johnson argued.

Johnson and his GOP allies have now made clear that President Joe Biden will have to make significant compromises in order to secure new funding. Their primary ask is a series of new border control measures that most Democrats view as over the line, leaving little room for compromise.

Even Biden — who has long promised to support Ukraine “as long as it takes” — could only muster a pledge to arm Kyiv “as long as we can.”

In Oslo, Zelensky got a friendlier reception on Wednesday from Nordic leaders, who promised new bilateral aid packages. Later that day, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez — who currently chairs the EU Council — said Kyiv could enter into official negotiations to join the EU as soon as this year.

But this upbeat moment proved fleeting. In a speech at an EU summit, Orban made clear that, whatever argument he may have gotten from Zelensky in Buenos Aires, there is little chance that he will change his mind on Ukraine’s accession bid.

The idea that the EU should start membership talks with Kyiv is “absurd, ridiculous, and not serious,” he argued. “Our stance is clear. We do not support Ukraine's quick EU entry,” Orban later wrote on Facebook.

On a more promising note for Ukraine, Orban has been more open to horse trading when it comes to aid. After days of back-and-forth, the EU agreed Wednesday that it would release funding for Hungary that had previously been withheld due to alleged democratic backsliding.

An Orban aide said Hungary would be open to relenting on Ukraine aid if that money comes through. If Budapest holds to the deal, the EU could announce a roughly $55 billion aid package for Kyiv as soon as Friday.

The timing could scarcely be more important for Ukraine. As its forces struggle against Russian soldiers at home, recent Dutch elections have created the possibility that far-right firebrand Geert Wilders could be the next prime minister of the Netherlands.

Wilders, whose party opposes aid to Ukraine and wants to hold a referendum to leave the EU, has so far failed to form a coalition but is considered to be in the strongest position to lead the country’s next government. If Wilders wins out in the end, Kyiv would likely be among the biggest losers.

Even if Wilders loses, all signs now point to a delay in U.S. funding until at least early January, setting Kyiv up for a difficult winter. Conscious of the diplomatic headwinds, Zelensky struck a defiant tone in a Thursday address to the EU, which he delivered via video link from Kyiv.

“This day will go down in our history. Whether it's good or bad for us, history will capture everything,” he said. “It's very important that Europe doesn't fall back into indecision today.”

In other diplomatic news related to the war in Ukraine:

— The U.S. declassified an intelligence report claiming that Russia has suffered over 300,000 casualties in Ukraine, though the report does not distinguish between deaths and injuries, according to the New York Times. The report, which argues that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s short-term goal is to reduce Western support for Ukraine, highlights the destructive impact that the conflict has had on Russia’s army. The decision to release the report suggests a shift in the Biden administration’s PR strategy, which has deemphasized the argument that the war is a “low cost” way to deliver Moscow a strategic loss — a line that some see as confirmation that the U.S. is pursuing a proxy war with Russia and has perverse incentives to extend it.

— Lawmakers from across Europe called on the U.S. Congress to pass aid for Ukraine, arguing that American support is “critical and urgent,” according to Reuters. “A Putin victory would embolden our enemies around the world: they are watching and hoping we grow tired,” wrote the group, led by French MP and former foreign policy analyst Benjamin Haddad. “Ukrainians are fighting so we don't have to.”

— Putin held a major news conference on Thursday where he reiterated his goals for the war — “denazification, demilitarization and [Ukraine’s] neutral status” — and revealed that Russia has 617,000 soldiers in Ukraine, according to the BBC. The Russian leader played down his military’s middling performance and alleged that Western “freebies” for Ukraine “are gradually running out.” Notably, he suggested that there has been some progress in talks for a U.S.-Russia prisoner exchange that could bring home ex-Marine Paul Whelan and Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich. “On the whole we're speaking in a language which we both understand,” Putin said. “I hope we find a solution.”

U.S. State Department news:

In a Monday press conference, State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said the U.S. is “deeply concerned” for the well-being of Alexei Navalny, a prominent Russian dissident who recently disappeared from a Russian penal colony, according to his lawyers. “We have communicated to the Russian Government that they are responsible for what happens to Mr. Navalny while he is in their custody, and they will be held accountable by the international community,” Miller said.
Reporting | QiOSK
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