Biden lost his temper with Zelenskyy in a phone call in June when the Ukrainian leader asked for more help
It has become routine since Russia invaded Ukraine: President Joe Biden and the Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy talk on the phone every time the US announces a new military assistance package for Kiev.
But a phone call between the two leaders in June played out differently from previous ones, according to four people familiar with the call. Biden had just finished telling Zelenskyy that he had just given another $1 billion in US military assistance to Ukraine when Zelenskyy started listing all the additional aid he needed and hadn’t received. Biden lost his temper, people familiar with the call said. The American people were generous enough, and their administration and the US military were working hard to help Ukraine, he said, raising his voice, and Zelenskyy could show a little more gratitude.
Administration officials said Biden and Zelenskyy’s relationship has only improved since the June phone call, after Zelenskyy issued a statement praising the United States for its generous assistance. But the clash reflects Biden’s initial awareness Congressional and public support for sending billions of dollars to Ukraine could begin to fade. That moment comes as the president prepares to ask Congress to also see the money for Ukraine.
Biden is now facing resistance from some Republicans and Democrats that was not present when Congress approved the previous funds in Ukraine. The White House discussed asking Congress for billions of dollars during the lame duck legislative session after the midterm elections.
The White House has not specified an amount publicly. Ukraine lawmakers and lobbyists are hoping for $40 billion to $60 billion, and some officials familiar with the talks expect the number to be around $50 billion.
A source familiar with the conversation said Biden was direct with Zelenskyy about handling the issues through the appropriate military channels, but that the exchange was not heated or angry.
A spokesman for the National Security Council declined to comment for the story.
A spokesman for Zelenskyy did not respond to a request for comment.
Top US officials warn there are no signs the war will end soon.
Before the June 15 phone call, the president’s frustrations with Zelenskyy had been building for weeks, three people familiar with the call said. Biden and some of his top aides felt it the administration did as much as it could as soon as possible but that Zelenskyy continued to publicly focus only on what was not done.
From Zelenskyy’s perspective—as well as that of some Eastern European governments and American lawmakers of both parties—there has been repeated frustration that the Biden White House is moving too slowly on weapons requests, initially hesitating to approve certain capabilities that Ukraine most urgently requested, only to relent weeks or months later under pressure, according to two sources familiar with the Ukrainian government’s views, congressional aides and two European officials.
After the pushback Zelenskyy received in his phone call in June, his team decided to try to defuse the tensions, concluding that it was not productive to have friction with the president of the United States, according to two sources familiar with the view of the Ukrainian government, aid from Congress and two Europeans. officers
Zelenskyy responded publicly that day by thanking Biden for the promised assistance.
“I had an important conversation with US President Biden today,” he said in video remarks. “I am thankful for this support. It is particularly important for our defense in Donbas.”
In his statement after the call, Biden said he had informed Zelenskyy of the $1 billion in aid and promised that the United States “will not waver in our commitment to the Ukrainian people as they fight for the their freedom”.
The effort to get weapons and equipment from Ukraine has intensified in recent weeks, as Ukraine tries to make significant gains before winter from harsh winter temperatures.
The Ukrainian army is focused on driving thousands of Russian troops away from Kherson, trying to surround them and retake the southern city from Russian control. The battle for Kherson could be one of the most consequential battles in Ukraine since the invasion. If Ukraine is able to retake the area, it could be a strong morale boost for Zelenskyy’s forces and a serious blow to the confidence of Russian troops. But if Russia holds out, it could keep its grip on the south, including the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, through the winter months. “This could be a turning point,” a defense official said.
Concerns about Ukraine’s support are also driving the current offensive, according to a defense official and a former official, as Ukraine tries to show momentum on the battlefield to encourage the flow of more weapons.
On October 12, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin convened a meeting of the Ukraine Contact Group in Brussels, a periodic gathering of allies, to discuss how to get more weapons and equipment into Ukrainian military hands. While past meetings have given assistance from munitions to missile launchers, this month’s meeting took on a new urgency, according to three defense officials familiar with the discussions.
“Everyone was stepping up,” said an official at the meeting. Countries were scouring their stores and warehouses to find anything that could help the Ukrainian military, the official said. “There was an urgency to get air defenses and everything we could before winter and so they can be successful in this current offensive.”
The meeting was so successful that Austin was giddy on the way out, two defense officials said.
Ukraine also needs more air defense systems to defend against Russian military aircraft, missiles and drones, and the United States continues to discuss providing longer-range missile systems such as the ATACMS and even some advanced fighter aircraft in the future.
The proportion of Americans who are extremely or very concerned about the loss of the Ukraine war has dropped 17 percentage points since May, from 55% to 38%, according to a Pew Research Center survey conducted last month. And the proportion of Americans who say they are not too worried or not worried about Russia’s victory rose from 16% to 26%, according to the survey.
The potential change in political will in the United States to continue sending aid to Ukraine could shake up how the White House and Zelenskyy have approached the issue so far.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the Biden administration has been criticized for moving too cautiously. Now the president faces potential pushback from some progressive Republican and Democratic lawmakers for providing too much aid.
The changing dynamics on Capitol Hill could also force Zelenskyy’s team to rethink how it engages with Washington, as it has often tried to leverage its support in Congress to get more out of the White House.
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