As American elections loom, Zelensky plays balancing act

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: AP
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. Photo: AP

Summary

At the NATO summit, the Ukrainian president pushed for more aid, with a nod to political realities.

WASHINGTON—Facing an uncertain outcome in U.S. elections in November and no clear pathway to NATO membership for his country, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky appealed Tuesday in a speech at the beginning of the alliance summit to a traditional vision of U.S. leadership.

He acknowledged that Ukraine’s future might be up for grabs in the coming U.S. presidential election in November. He steered clear of criticizing presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump but did sound a note against U.S. isolationism, saying that if Ukraine is defeated, Western values will be defeated with it.

“I want to be candid and frank: Now everyone is waiting for November, “ he said. “And truly speaking, Putin awaits November too."

Zelensky’s speech was his third major appearance in the U.S. since the Russian invasion in 2022. Shortly after the invasion, he addressed Congress in a speech that was interrupted by standing ovations. But during a subsequent visit, he faced more of an uphill fight, as skepticism over aid to Ukraine had grown among some Republicans.

His appearance Tuesday was hosted by the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation, part of the traditional Republican establishment that has supported aid to Ukraine. The foundation’s director, Roger Zakheim, said he invited Zelensky as part of the foundation’s agenda promoting Reagan’s belief in a foreign policy based on peace through strength.

He noted that Zelensky’s speech comes 40 years after Reagan, commemorating the 40th anniversary of the Normandy landings, gave a resounding denunciation of isolationism, which he said “never was and never will be an acceptable response to tyrannical governments with an expansionist intent."

​​Retired Army Lt. Gen. Keith Kellogg, who served on President Trump’s National Security Council and continues to advise the former president, said Zelensky’s venue choice was symbolically important “because the institution is the namesake of Ronald Reagan, the true practitioner of freedom."

In his speech, Zelensky said he supported Reagan’s legacy. He spoke further of Russian abuses, targeting of civilian buildings in Ukraine, and a missile campaign that has taken down swaths of the country’s electricity grid, a violation of the rules-based order that he said would become widespread in Europe if Putin is allowed to win in Ukraine.

He said Russia’s missile attack on Ukraine on Monday, the largest in months, was likely timed as a “signal" from Putin to the NATO summit. The attack hit a children’s hospital in Kyiv and killed at least 33 and wounded more than 100, according to Ukrainian officials.

Asked what he believed Putin thought of Biden and Trump, Zelensky replied that while Americans might see large differences, Putin doesn’t. “Biden and Trump are very different, but they are supportive of democracy, and that’s why I think Putin will hate both of them," he said.

He renewed what has been a familiar balancing act with Western backers, expressing gratitude for a raft of military assistance from alliance members while cajoling them for more. His visit to the NATO conference comes amid mounting problems at home.

A year ago he was still talking of retaking all the Russian-occupied territory in Ukraine. But Ukraine’s counteroffensive last year made precious little progress, and this year Moscow has taken back the initiative.

Zelensky said a surge of Western weaponry had stopped a Russian offensive near the Ukrainian city of Kharkiv earlier this year, and the arrival of five new Patriot air defense batteries were helping Ukraine take down more Russian missile strikes.

“They will help," he said, thanking the U.S. for the additional Patriot systems. “Of course, it’s not enough. It’s never enough."

Zelensky has often expressed annoyance at the reluctance of NATO members to set a timetable for Ukraine’s entrance into the alliance. Sometimes he has failed to control his pique, complaining about the sluggishness of U.S. aid to Ukraine and the limitations it has placed on striking targets in Russia.

Before the NATO summit in Vilnius last year, he called NATO’s failure to set out a clear timeline for Ukraine’s admittance to the alliance “absurd."

At the summit in Washington this week, the alliance isn’t expected to offer any timetable for entering NATO, and members are still wrestling over wording of a communiqué at the end of the summit that will further declare Ukraine’s place in NATO without actually letting it in.

Earlier this week State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the summit would bring “additional specificity about Ukraine’s bridge to NATO." Another Western diplomat said Ukraine’s path to NATO would be called “irreversible."

But the summit is likely to bring new promises of aid to Kyiv that Zelensky might take home as compensation. President Biden on Tuesday promised new air defense systems to Kyiv, and NATO is also expected to announce this week plans to station a senior civilian official in Kyiv and mechanisms to shore up long-term support for Ukraine.

Seth Jones, a senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Zelensky’s presence in Washington might be to woo Europeans as much as Americans, whose commitment to Ukraine hangs in the balance in November’s elections, regardless of what is decided at the NATO summit.

“To hang on, and even to keep what they have right now, let alone to try to retake territory, they’re going to need munitions, munitions, and munitions for the foreseeable future," he said. “It is unclear that the Trump administration is going to be willing to do that. And so I think Zelensky is in a very important period right now, where he has got to convince NATO, particularly European countries, that there’s a lot at stake in Ukraine."

Because of worries about the coming presidential campaign, the NATO summit in Washington has a “split screen" flavor to it, said Eric Green, a nonresident scholar at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former director for Russia and Central Asia on Biden’s security council.

But he said Zelensky should be impressed by the breadth of the aid to Ukraine from NATO allies. Despite the hiccup at last year’s NATO summit in Vilnius over Zelensky’s remarks, the summit was followed by bilateral security agreements between Ukraine and NATO members, including with the U.S. and earlier this week with Poland, he said.

“The idea is to build scaffolding for long-term credible defense and deterrence capability for Ukraine," Green said. “This isn’t NATO membership, but it does start to change facts on the ground to show Moscow that conquering Ukraine isn’t in the cards."

Write to Alan Cullison at alan.cullison@wsj.com

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