It’s become routine since Russia invaded Ukraine: President Joe Biden and the President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky speak on the phone whenever the United States announces a new military assistance program for Kyiv.
But a phone call between the two leaders in June went differently than previous ones, according to four people familiar with the call. Biden had barely finished telling Zelenskyy that he had just given the go-ahead for an additional $1 billion in US military aid for Ukraine when Zelenskyy began listing all the additional help he needed and that he didn’t get. Biden lost his temper, people familiar with the call said. The American people were quite generous, 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 relations between Biden and Zelenskyy had only improved since the June phone call, after which Zelenskyy issued a statement commending the United States for its generous assistance. But the clash reflects Biden’s early realization that congressional and public support for sending billions of dollars to Ukraine may begin to fade. This moment has come just as the President is about to ask Congress to greenlight even the money for Ukraine.
Biden now faces resistance from some Republicans and Democrats who weren’t present when Congress approved previous Ukrainian funds. 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. Ukrainian lawmakers and lobbyists are hoping for $40 billion to $60 billion, and some officials familiar with the discussions expect that figure 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 the exchange was neither heated nor angry.
A National Security Council spokesman declined to comment on the story.
A spokesperson for Zelenskyy did not respond to a request for comment.
Senior US officials warn there are no signs the war will end soon.
Prior to the June 15 phone call, the president’s frustrations with Zelensky had been building for weeks, three people familiar with the call said. Biden and some of his top aides felt that the administration was doing everything they could as fast as they could but that Zelenskyy continued to focus publicly only on what was not being done.
From Zelenskyy’s perspective — as well as that of some Eastern European governments and U.S. lawmakers on both sides — there has been repeated frustration that the Biden White House is moving too slowly on demands for weapons, initially hesitant to approve some capabilities urgently requested by Ukraine, only to cave weeks or months later under pressure, according to two sources familiar with the Ukrainian government’s view, congressional aides and two European officials.
After the pushback Zelenskyy got in their June phone call, his team decided to try to defuse the tensions, concluding that it was not productive to have friction with the US president, according to two familiar sources. with the point of view of the Ukrainian government, assistants of the Congress and two European civil servants.
Zelenskyy responded publicly that day by thanking Biden for the promised help.
“I had an important conversation with US President Biden today,” he said in videotaped remarks. “I am grateful for this support. It is especially important for our defense in Donbass.”
In his statement after the call, Biden said he briefed Zelenskyy on the billion-dollar aid and pledged that the United States “will not waver in our commitment to the people of Ukraine as they fights for his freedom.
Efforts to secure Ukrainian weapons and equipment have intensified in recent weeks as Ukraine attempts to make significant gains before harsh winter temperatures set in.
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 of Kherson might be one of the most important battles in Ukraine since the invasion. If Ukraine is able to retake the area, it could be a major morale boost for Zelenskyy’s forces and a serious blow to the confidence of Russian troops. But if Russia holds firm, it could maintain its grip on the south, including the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant, through the winter months. “It could be a turning point,” said a defense official.
Concerns about dwindling support for Ukraine are also driving the current offensives, according to a defense official and former official, as Ukraine tries to show its momentum on the battlefield to encourage the circulation 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 between the hands of the Ukrainian military. While past meetings have provided assistance ranging from munitions to missile launchers, this month’s meeting took on new urgency, according to three defense officials familiar with the discussions.
“Everyone rallied together,” an official said at the meeting. Countries were scouring their stockpiles and warehouses for anything that could help the Ukrainian military, the official said. “There was an urgent need to get them air defenses and everything we could before winter, so that they could make a success of this current offensive.”
The meeting was such a success that Austin was giddy walking out, two defense officials said.
Ukraine still needs more air defense systems to defend against Russian military aircraft, missiles and drones, and the United States continues to discuss supplying longer-range missile systems like the ATACMS and even some advanced combat aircraft in the future.
The proportion of Americans who are extremely or very concerned about Ukraine losing the war has fallen 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 at all worried about Russia’s victory rose from 16% to 26%, according to the survey.
The potential change in the political will of the United States to continue sending aid to Ukraine could upend the way the White House and Zelenskyy have approached the issue so far.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the Biden administration has been criticized for acting too cautiously. Now the president faces potential pushback from some progressive Republican and Democratic lawmakers that he is providing too much help.
The changing dynamic 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 the most out of the White House.