By Trevor Hunnicutt, Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden warned Republicans on Tuesday that they would give Russia a “Christmas gift” if they failed to provide additional military aid to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, whose meeting with a top U.S. lawmaker concluded without a commitment for more support.
Zelenskiy traveled to Washington to plead for money to back Ukraine in its war with Russia, but he faced a skeptical reception from key Republican lawmakers. Mike Johnson, the speaker of the House of Representatives, would not agree to support Biden’s request to give Ukraine $61.4 billion.
“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 said after meeting with Zelenskiy.
Biden, who met with Zelenskiy later at the White House, said he would not walk away from Ukraine and neither would the American people. He warned lawmakers that they risked handing a victory to Russian President Vladimir Putin if they did not approve the request for aid.
“Putin is banking on the United States failing to deliver for Ukraine,” he said during a press conference with the Ukrainian leader. “We must … prove him wrong.”
Earlier in the Oval Office, Biden told Zelenskiy, “We’re gonna stay at your side,” saying that Congress needed to pass legislation approving the aid “before they give Putin the greatest Christmas gift they could possibly give him.”
Zelenskiy said he heard “great many things” during his talks with political leaders in Washington and was thankful for the support of the Biden administration and lawmakers, but time will tell if the U.S. will continue to help fund its defense against Russia.
“There were signals. They were more than positive. But we know that there are words and there are concrete results. We will count on a great result,” Zelenskiy said.
He also rejected any calls to cede Ukrainian territory to Russia.
“How can Ukraine simply give away its territory? This is absolutely insane,” Zelenskiy said. “Let’s be honest. … Our people live there…our children. It’s a part of our society. We’re talking about people who live there.”
Heading into winter, with tens of thousands of Ukrainians dead, a yawning budget deficit and Russian advances in the east, Zelenskiy is asking Washington to provide badly needed support.
Wearing a black shirt and olive drab trousers, Zelenskiy was met with sustained applause in Congress as he entered a closed-door meeting with U.S. senators, and the chamber’s Democratic and Republican leaders pledged their support.
But some Republicans, particularly those with the closest ties to former President Donald Trump, oppose more aid. They say any further money must be paired with changes to immigration policy at home — an exceptionally divisive issue in U.S. politics.
Democratic Senator Chris Murphy, who is leading the talks, said he thought lawmakers could reach an immigration deal and pass the spending package before Congress recesses for the year on Friday.
But Republicans said that was not likely.
“I’m becoming increasingly pessimistic,” Senator Susan Collins told reporters.
Speaker Johnson said he would not act until the Senate passed legislation. “I implore them to do their job because the time is urgent and we do want to do the right thing,” he told reporters.
Both the war and immigration issues are expected to be lightning-rod issues ahead of the 2024 U.S. presidential and congressional elections. Trump and Biden are both seeking the presidency.
Biden said the U.S. wanted Ukraine to win the war, but one Republican lawmaker questioned whether additional aid would help Ukraine defeat Russia after a summer offensive that has failed to yield clear gains.
“I know everyone wants Ukraine to win. I just don’t see it in the cards,” Republican Senator Ron Johnson said.
Democrats in Congress accused their political opposition of aiding Putin. “He is delighting in the fact that Donald Trump’s border policies are sabotaging military aid to Ukraine,” Democratic Senate Leader Chuck Schumer said.
Newly declassified U.S. intelligence shows that “Russia seems to believe that a military deadlock through the winter will drain Western support for Ukraine” and ultimately give Russia the advantage, said Adrienne Watson, spokesperson for the White House National Security Council.
The White House told Congress on Dec. 4 the government will no longer have funding to provide more weapons for Ukraine after the end of the year. Congress has approved more than $110 billion for Ukraine since Russia’s February 2022 invasion, but no new funds since Republicans took control of the House from Democrats in January.
Biden told Zelenskiy during the press conference that Ukraine’s continued existence as an independent nation was a sign of success. “For you to be here today – again today – nearly two years later and for Ukraine to be staying strong and free is an enormous victory already,” he said.
The United States cannot turn the tide of war in Ukraine by pumping tens of billions more dollars into the country, the Kremlin said on Tuesday.
The war has cost Russia 315,000 dead and injured troops, nearly 90% of the personnel it had before the conflict began, according to a source familiar with a declassified U.S. intelligence report.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle, Richard Cowan and Trevor Hunnicutt; Additional reporting by Steve Holland, David Morgan and Doina Chiacu; Writing by Jeff Mason; Editing by Andy Sullivan, Heather Timmons, Alistair Bell, Lisa Shumaker and Leslie Adler)