Biden and Zelenskyy to meet amid tensions over pace of U.S. military aid

“It’s a familiar pattern we’ve seen again and again. It’s usually: ‘No, No, Maybe, Yes,’” said John Herbst, a retired career diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. 

Ukraine and its supporters say the prolonged deliberations and delays have cost lives and undermined Ukraine’s progress on the battlefield. 

From Zelenskyy’s perspective, the U.S. is hamstringing him, and there’s “real, real frustration,” said a former U.S. official with knowledge of the matter.

In recent interviews, Zelenskyy has sounded baffled and angry over the scale and scope of U.S. and Western military aid, asking why his country could not have more Patriot missile defense systems to save civilians and the country’s electrical grid from constant aerial attack.

“Can we get seven?” he told the New York Times, referring to what he called the minimum number of Patriot systems needed. “Do you think it is too much for the NATO anniversary summit in Washington?” he asked. “For a country that is fighting for freedom and democracy around the world today?”

U.S. officials say Washington is by far Ukraine’s biggest source of military help, that the administration has to take into account geopolitical risks, and that it has been willing to shift its stance as needed. 

The administration’s approach has caused frustration not only in Kyiv but also on both sides of the aisle in Congress, one congressional aide said.

“At every stage of the war, from February 2022 until the present moment, the administration has been slow to respond to Ukrainian requests for everything,” from ammunition to tanks to longer-range missiles, the congressional aide said.

“And in every case, so far, a month or two or three later, the administration has changed its mind and provided what the Ukrainians were asking for. But in every case, they’ve done it too late and often with too little,” the aide said.

Republican Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, the Republican chair of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, said the Biden administration should have lifted restrictions on Ukraine’s use of American-made weapons much earlier, before conditions deteriorated.

“This decision should have been made before Russia’s recent offensive in Kharkiv, not after. Instead, the Biden administration’s continued handwringing crippled Ukraine’s response, forcing them to stand idly by and watch Russian forces prepare for an imminent attack just across its border,” McCaul and Turner said in a joint statement.

Biden’s decision not to attend an international peace summit later this month organized by Ukraine has further aggravated the strains in the partnership. More than 80 countries will participate in the summit. Russia was not invited, and China will not attend.

“I believe that the peace summit needs President Biden, and other leaders need President Biden because they will look at the U.S.’s reaction,” Zelenskyy said at a recent news conference in Brussels.

Biden’s absence “would only be met by an applause by Putin — a personal, standing applause,” Zelenskyy said.

Vice President Kamala Harris and Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, will be attending the June 15 event in Switzerland, the White House said. Ukraine had hoped that Biden could proceed to the conference as he will be in Italy only days earlier. But the president is expected to attend a fundraiser in Los Angeles that weekend that will include George Clooney and other Hollywood guests.

Rift over corruption and reform

 The issue of corruption in Ukraine has been a source of repeated disagreement as well, with U.S. diplomats and officials demanding decisive action from Zelenskyy’s government. Ukrainian officials are particularly irritated with the U.S. ambassador, Bridget Brink, over the issue, current and former officials said.

From Ukraine’s view, Zelenskyy has made significant progress in countering corruption, funding a special prosecutor’s office and anti-corruption court. Some Ukrainian officials say the U.S. ambassador has created unnecessary tensions and lost sight of the overarching priority — winning on the battlefield, according to sources close to the government.

The Biden administration has called for further reform, transparency and accountability as necessary steps for Ukraine to undertake for joining the European Union as well as NATO.

A U.S. official acknowledged the tensions with Ukraine over Washington’s efforts on corruption. But the official said a recent shakeup within Kyiv’s top anti-corruption agency represented an example of the continued need for reform. The number two at Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau of Ukraine was reportedly suspended last month after a leak within the agency compromised a high-profile investigation into a road-building project involving government money.

Although Ambassador Brink receives the brunt of the Ukrainian government’s frustration, her focus on reform and anti-corruption measures in Kyiv has the full backing and support of both Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the president, the U.S. official said.

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