Zelenskyy says action against Putin cannot wait until US election in November: ‘step out of the shadows’

  • Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said action to defend Ukraine against Russia must not be delayed until after the U.S. presidential election in November.
  • Zelenskyy seeks aid from NATO as well as membership in the alliance, but NATO will not admit a new member until the conflict between Russia and Ukraine is resolved.
  • Former President Donald Trump is skeptical of NATO. He has criticized allies for not hitting defense spending goals. Zelenskyy expressed hope that the U.S. would continue to support both NATO and Ukraine if Trump is re-elected.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Tuesday that decisive action must be taken before the U.S. presidential election in November to repel Russia’s offensive against his country, using an address on the sidelines of the NATO summit to press for greater support during a pivotal but tumultuous stretch in America’s political calendar.

“It’s time to step out of the shadows to make strong decisions to act and not wait for November or any other months to descend. We must be strong and uncompromising all together,” Zelenskyy said.

Speaking in Washington four months before an election beset by new uncertainty following President Joe Biden’s shaky debate performance, he aimed his message at Republicans, whose NATO-adverse leader looks to be in an improving position to win back the presidency.

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The president of the United States, Zelenskyy added, must be “uncompromising in defending democracy, uncompromising against (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and his coterie.”

Zelenskyy has proven to be an adept navigator of international relations in defense of his war-ravaged country, publicly cajoling and sometimes loudly complaining to get the military assistance it needs to defend itself against Russia.

This latest trip to Washington came against the backdrop of a fresh commitment of aid — Biden earlier Tuesday announced that dozens of air defense systems will be sent to Ukraine by NATO allies — but also ahead of an election that could yield a change in power. Zelenskyy said he hoped the race would not yield a policy overhaul.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks at the Ronald Reagan Institute on the sideline of NATO Summit.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks at the Ronald Reagan Institute on the sideline of NATO Summit in Washington on July 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The Ukrainian leader sought to minimize the potential fallout of a Donald Trump victory, who is a NATO skeptic and has criticized the Biden administration’s support for Kyiv during Russia’s war in Ukraine. Zelenskyy spoke at the Reagan Institute, named after Republican icon Ronald Reagan, and his appeal for support was directed at an audience of GOP heavyweights that included Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Zelenskyy will meet with lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

“I hope that if the people of America will elect President Trump, I hope that his policy with Ukraine will not change,” Zelenskyy said in a question-and-answer session with Fox News host Bret Baier after his speech. “I hope that the United States will never go out from NATO.”

Otherwise, he said, “the world will lose a lot of countries” that “count on America.”

Zelenskyy, who will have a separate meeting with Biden on Thursday, said he doesn’t know Trump well but had good meetings with him when he was president. He noted, however, that they did not go through the Russia-Ukraine war together, and only during a shared experience like that can one understand “if you can count on somebody or not.”

As president, Trump was impeached in late 2019 by the House of Representatives after pressuring Zelenskyy to announce an investigation into Biden and his son Hunter, while withholding $400 million in military aid to Ukraine. Biden at the time was mounting a campaign to run against Trump in the 2020 election. Trump was ultimately acquitted by the Senate.

Despite the fresh aid announced Tuesday and the warm embrace he received from the Republican-dominated audience at the Reagan Institute, Zelenskyy finds that his most coveted prize — membership in the military alliance — remains elusive. The European and North American countries making up NATO are in no hurry to admit Ukraine, especially while it is engaged in active hostilities with Russia that could drag them into a broader war.

Zelenskyy, who was feted as a champion of democracy in Washington in the aftermath of Russia’s 2022 invasion but was forced to plead his case for aid to U.S. lawmakers just last year, found himself once again in the American capital as bridesmaid.

At the NATO summit, he is trying to navigate a turbulent American political landscape as Biden tries to show his strength on the world stage and ability to keep leading the alliance’s most important member, despite post-debate uneasiness among some fellow Democrats about his capacity to serve another four years.

Trump, meanwhile, has criticized allies for not hitting defense spending goals and raised concerns in Europe about continued U.S. support for NATO and Ukraine. His Republican supporters in Congress were responsible for a monthslong delay in U.S. military assistance, which allowed Russia to gain ground against Ukraine’s depleted forces.

At a rally Tuesday night in Florida, Trump again sought to take credit for the number of NATO member countries now meeting defense spending targets, saying that when he first addressed NATO members as president, “nobody was paying.” The striking increase, however, came only after the Ukraine war began and when Biden was president.

The stakes for Zelenskyy, meanwhile, have never been higher. On Monday, Russia unleashed its heaviest bombardment of Kyiv in almost four months and one of the deadliest of the war, which leveled a wing of Ukraine’s biggest children’s hospital.

Against that backdrop, Biden announced that the U.S. and other NATO members will send dozens of air defense systems to Ukraine in the coming months, including at least four of the powerful Patriot systems it has been desperately seeking to help fight off Russian advances in the war.

In the coming days, Zelenskyy will hear a chorus of support from countries that have poured weapons into his country, despite the recent damaging U.S. and European lags in greenlighting more aid.

Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, whose country is the second-richest in NATO, says “Germany stands unwaveringly by the side of the Ukrainians, especially in these difficult times.”

But an invitation to join the alliance is not in the cards even as Russia’s latest strikes have galvanized support for Ukraine. NATO will not admit a new member until the conflict is resolved.

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Instead, it will present Zelenskyy with what officials are calling a “bridge to membership.” That is supposed to lay out specific tasks, including governmental, economic and rule-of-law reforms, that Ukraine must fulfill to join.

Many in Ukraine see NATO membership as the only way to protect against future Russian aggression if the war ends. But the yearslong conflict, which has cost thousands of Ukrainian lives, has left many frustrated and skeptical that their country will ever join the Western alliance.

While Zelenskyy has largely been a successful politician on the world stage, he struggles to maintain his popularity in Ukraine, which has decreased in part because of persistent questions about corruption, analysts say.

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