Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky came to America this week hoping for a reprise of the cheering adulation and pledges of massive military support that he received during his last visit, 10 months ago. Instead, he smacked into arcades of dysfunction.
On his first stop, at the United Nations, he gave an impassioned speech before the General Assembly—but more than a third of the hall’s seats were empty, the heads of state from four of the Security Council’s five permanent members were no-shows, and his meeting with the council dramatized that body’s inability to help him stave off Russia’s aggression.
Then came a trip to Capitol Hill, in which the beleaguered House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, not only declined Zelensky’s request to address a joint session of Congress but barred him from the chamber’s private meeting room, directing the few House Republicans who wanted to greet him to do so at the National Archives, nearly a mile away. (More than half the Senators—including several Republicans—attended a briefing by Kyiv’s wartime leader on the other side of the Capitol.)
Finally, President Biden warmly welcomed Zelensky to the White House for the second time and promised him yet another package. But Biden denied him the long-range ATACMS missiles, at least for now, and it is unclear whether Congress—which is on the verge of forcing a government shutdown, owing to a few House Republicans’ guerrilla tactics—will approve any more funding. Then there’s the nightmare of Donald Trump’s possible return to power a year and a few months from now, in which case Kyiv is likely doomed to a coup by some Kremlin-backed quisling.
Zelensky’s plane ride back home must have been a bit grim.
The U.N. follies seemed especially discouraging. His entry into the Security Council started out well. The Russian ambassador protested that, since Ukraine is not a council member, Zelensky should not be allowed to speak at all. To which Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama—one of the rotating nonpermanent council members who happened to be serving as chair—proposed a mirthful deal: “You stop the war, and President Zelensky will not take the floor.”
But then things went badly. Under the U.N. Charter’s rules, each of the council’s five permanent members has the right to veto any resolution—which is how Russia has managed to block any serious move to condemn Moscow or support Kyiv in this war. In frustration, Zelensky railed against the charter itself, urging the council to change the rule—to allow the General Assembly to override a veto.
The problem is that it takes two-thirds of the General Assembly to change any rule. In any case, none of the Security Council’s members are likely to surrender their power. It is worth noting that although Russia has vetoed resolutions 121 times over the decades (including during its days as the Soviet Union), the U.S. has done so 82 times; China, 17 times; and France, 16 times. In April 2022, the General Assembly passed a resolution requiring debate when a veto is cast in the Security Council, but this hasn’t led to any reversals.
In other episodes not involving Ukraine, the U.N. showed itself incapable of seriousness. At a breakaway session to discuss climate change, Secretary-General António Guterres excluded the world’s five largest emitters of greenhouse gases—China, the U.S., Russia, India, and Japan—from attending. Since no remedies can be negotiated without those countries’ involvement, Guterres all but admitted that the whole meeting was mere theater.
By the time Zelensky moved on to Washington, Capitol Hill was plowed over in a theater of the absurd. The week before, the handful of MAGA extremists in the House had threatened to shut down the government and possibly evict McCarthy from his speaker’s chair if he didn’t undertake an inquiry into impeaching Biden. McCarthy relented—but the faction, small but crucial to the Republicans’ slender majority, persisted in its threat.
McCarthy lashed out in an interview on Fox News: “This is a whole new concept of individuals that just want to burn the whole place down. That doesn’t work.” He was wrong about two things. First, it’s not new—McCarthy caved to these individuals in order to win the speakership. Second, for the moment, it seems to be working.
Privately, McCarthy favors the continued support of Ukraine. He reportedly told Zelensky as much in a closed meeting. But because the extremists who hold a sword over his head oppose giving Kyiv any more money, he can’t say so publicly. Instead, he fumed to reporters: “Was Zelensky elected to Congress? Is he our president? I don’t think so”—a remark that must have warmed Vladimir Putin’s heart.
Finally came the much friendlier meeting with Biden, who repeated assurances that he would do whatever it takes, for as long as it takes, to support Ukraine and hoped that Congress would wind up doing the right thing. But then his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, announced that, contrary to leaked news stories a few days earlier, the new aid package would not include the long-range ATACMS missile, which Zelensky has been desiring—though, Sullivan added, Biden had “not taken it off the table for the future.”
This is bizarre. There are legitimate arguments both for and against providing ATACMS missiles to Ukraine. On the one hand, the missiles have a range of 190 miles, giving Ukraine the ability to strike targets on Crimea and well into Russian territory. On the other hand, striking such targets may cross Putin’s “red lines” and push him to escalate the war. Whichever view is right, it makes little sense to deny the missiles now but leave them on the table for later. If Biden isn’t on principle against providing them at some point, then now is the time to send them.
The Washington Post reported Friday that Biden might send an older model of ATACMS that is armed with cluster bombs. If true, this suggests that he might have been persuaded by some U.S. Army officers who have argued that our own stockpile of ATACMS missiles is too dwindled to share them with others. Since the U.S. doesn’t use cluster bombs in its own operations, the older missiles might therefore be free to go.
In any case, Zelensky is not having a good month. The counteroffensive is progressing much more slowly than he had hoped. The New York sessions revealed that the U.N. can’t put effective pressure on Russia. The trip to D.C. must have affirmed his suspicions that there might be limits on American patience and aid.
A week before this trip, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who was hosting the G20 summit, barred Zelensky from attending. And just yesterday, as Zelensky was wrapping up his American voyage, Mateusz Morawiecki—the prime minister of Poland, one of Ukraine’s leading allies—said he would no longer be sending Kyiv modern weapons, as the country needs them for its own defense. Polish President Andrzej Duda clarified that Poland would send older weapons, but still, the damage was done.
Ukraine’s cause in the war is as valid as ever. Its plight in the war is at least as urgent. Yet Zelensky is running into obstacles beyond his control, ones that have less to do with the merits of his case than with the limits of international institutions and the morbidity of domestic politics (in the U.S. and elsewhere). Meanwhile, the war grinds on in a stalemate. There are no available guarantors of a peace, nor even a formula for a cease-fire that wouldn’t strike one side or the other as a surrender. Meanwhile, Putin’s reign, which many once saw as fragile, seems very durable: The war is likely to persist as long as he is in power, and that’s likely to be the case for a while.