Zelensky returns to Washington to face growing dissent among Republicans to US spending for Ukraine

Zelensky returns to Washington to face growing dissent among Republicans to US spending for Ukraine
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky returned to Washington on Thursday for a whirlwind one-day visit. (AP/File)
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Updated 21 September 2023
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Zelensky returns to Washington to face growing dissent among Republicans to US spending for Ukraine

Zelensky returns to Washington to face growing dissent among Republicans to US spending for Ukraine
  • Zelensky will meet with President Joe Biden at the White House
  • National Security Council spokesman John Kirby called the Ukrainian president “our best messenger” in persuading US lawmakers to keep vital US money and weapons coming

WASHINGTON: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky returned to Washington on Thursday for a whirlwind one-day visit, this time to face the Republicans now questioning the flow of American dollars that for 19 months has kept his troops in the fight against Russian forces.
Zelensky will meet with President Joe Biden at the White House, speak with US military leaders at the Pentagon and stop at Capitol Hill to talk privately with Republican and Democratic leaders of the House and Senate as the world is watching Western support for Kyiv.
It is Zelensky’s second visit to Washington since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022 and comes as Biden’s request to Congress for an additional $24 billion for Ukraine’s military and humanitarian needs is hanging in the balance.
National Security Council spokesman John Kirby called the Ukrainian president “our best messenger” in persuading US lawmakers to keep vital US money and weapons coming.
“It’s really important for members of Congress to be able to hear directly from the president about what he’s facing in this counteroffensive,” Kirby told reporters Wednesday, “and how he’s achieving his goals, and what he needs to continue to achieve those goals.”
Biden has called on world leaders to stand strong with Ukraine, even as he faces domestic political divisions at home. A hard-right flank of Republicans, led by former President Donald Trump, Biden’s chief rival in the 2024 race for the White House, is increasingly opposed to sending more money overseas.
As the White House worked to shore up support for Ukraine before Zelensky’s visit, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and top intelligence officials briefed senior lawmakers behind closed doors Wednesday to argue the case.
But some Senate Republicans walked out of the briefing no more convinced than before about the necessity of spending more on Ukraine. “It’s not close to the end,” Sen. Josh Hawley, a Missouri Republican, said. “What we’re basically told is, ‘Buckle up and get out your checkbook.”’
Since the start of the war, most members of Congress supported approving four rounds of aid to Ukraine, totaling about $113 billion, viewing defense of the country and its democracy as an imperative, especially when it comes to containing Russian President Vladimir Putin. Some of that money went toward replenishing US military equipment sent to the frontlines.
Democratic Sen. Mark Kelly of Arizona, who traveled to Kyiv this week, said cutting off US aid during the Ukrainians’ counteroffensive would be “catastrophic” to their efforts.
“That would clearly be the opening that Putin is looking for,” Kelly said Wednesday. “They cannot be successful without our support.”
The political environment has shifted markedly since Zelensky addressed Congress last December on his first trip out of Ukraine since the war began. He was met with rapturous applause for his country’s bravery and surprisingly strong showing in the war.
His meeting with senators on Thursday will take place behind closed doors in the Old Senate Chamber, a historical and intimate place of importance at the US Capitol, signifying the respect the Senate is showing the foreign leader.
But on the other side of the Capitol, Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, who faces more opposition within his Trump-aligned ranks to supporting Ukraine, is planning a separate meeting with Zelensky, with a smaller bipartisan group of lawmakers and committee chairmen.
“I will have questions for President Zelensky,” McCarthy told reporters before the visit.
The House speaker said he wanted more accountability for the money the US has already approved for Ukraine before moving ahead with more.
And, McCarthy said, he wants to know, “What is the plan for victory?”
In the Senate, however, Ukraine has a strong ally in Republican leader Mitch McConnell, who is out front in pushing his party, and the president, to continue robust support for Kyiv.
McConnell urged Biden before Wednesday’s closed-door briefing to senators to make sure the administration’s top brass puts forward a more forceful case in support of Ukraine so Congress can send Zelensky what’s needed to win the war.
“I sometimes get the sense that I speak more about Ukraine matters than the president does,” McConnell said in a speech Wednesday.


Thousands ordered to flee while they can as bushfire burns in Australia’s south

Thousands ordered to flee while they can as bushfire burns in Australia’s south
Updated 22 February 2024
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Thousands ordered to flee while they can as bushfire burns in Australia’s south

Thousands ordered to flee while they can as bushfire burns in Australia’s south
  • Roughly 50 square kilometers is ablaze northwest of Ballarat
  • A similar area is also burning out of control further to the west

SYDNEY: More than two thousand people have been ordered to evacuate from towns in the west of Australia’s Victoria state due to a bushfire burning out of control on Thursday.
The state emergency service urged residents in the towns of Raglan and Beaufort, home to around two thousand people, and those in surrounding areas to leave while it was still safe and head east to the nearby regional hub of Ballarat, 95 kilometers west of Melbourne.
Roughly 50 square kilometers is ablaze northwest of Ballarat. A similar area is also burning out of control further to the west.
State Premier Jacinta Allan said more than 1,000 firefighters were on the ground, supported by 24 aircraft and more than 100 vehicles. More are set to join the fight soon.
“Leaving immediately is the safest option for those communities,” she said at a news conference. “If you are located in these areas, please heed this advice, please act now to save your own life.”
Officials said no property damage had been reported but it was too soon for an accurate picture.
Large swathes of the state are on high alert for fires and the Bureau of Meteorology on Thursday issued extreme fire danger warnings for several districts due to hot, dry winds and the potential for thunderstorms.
The fires west of Ballarat are expected to worsen throughout the evening until around midnight, when the winds will begin to slow, Jason Heffernan, chief officer of the Country Fire Authority, told the news conference.
Temperatures were above 40° Celsius (104° Fahrenheit) in the northwest of the state at 3.00 p.m. (0400 GMT).


In Michigan, Arab American voters vow to ‘punish’ Biden

In Michigan, Arab American voters vow to ‘punish’ Biden
Updated 22 February 2024
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In Michigan, Arab American voters vow to ‘punish’ Biden

In Michigan, Arab American voters vow to ‘punish’ Biden
  • As Gaza Strip death toll climbs, residents once firmly in the Democratic fold — are turning against the president in a crucial swing state he won by just 150,000 votes in 2020.

Dearborn: It’s common to hear residents chatting in Arabic just as often as English in this Detroit suburb’s stores or mosques, those buildings themselves often sporting bilingual signage out front.
But no matter the language, residents in this Arab American and Muslim stronghold in the Midwestern state of Michigan are convinced President Joe Biden, as he steadfastly stands by Israel in its war in Gaza, is not listening to them.
“Vote for Palestine. No Biden,” political organizer Samra’a Luqman says in English, passing out fliers outside a mosque after prayers.
“Don’t vote for Biden,” the activist with Yemeni origins adds in Arabic.
“Of course,” respond many passersby.
As the Gaza Strip death toll climbs, residents here — once firmly in the Democratic fold — are turning against the president in a crucial swing state he won by just 150,000 votes in 2020.
Some are hoping to pressure Biden to back off from his Israel support and call for a ceasefire. Others, like Luqman, say they would never vote for him.
“He’s committing the genocide. He’s funding it,” Luqman, a campaign leader with a group called Abandon Biden, tells AFP.
A campaign is underway by Luqman and others urging voters to vote “uncommitted,” or write in “Free Palestine” on their ballots in the state’s primary next week — a symbolic gesture, since Biden faces no serious challengers for the Democratic nomination.
“This is a campaign about pressuring our current president who can do something about the mass killing of children,” says Abbas Alawieh, a former Democratic chief of staff on Capitol Hill and member of the Listen to Michigan campaign group.
“In this community there are a lot of people who are directly harmed by war,” the Lebanese-born Alawieh tells AFP.
Biden, he says, “is threatening to lose this community. Not just in November, but perhaps for a generation to come.”
The war started when Hamas launched its attack on October 7, resulting in the deaths of about 1,160 people in Israel, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally of official Israeli figures.
But concern has mounted amid the high civilian toll in Israel’s retaliatory campaign, now at 29,313 people dead, according to the health ministry in Hamas-run Gaza.
Listen to Michigan began as a pressure campaign, but some voters say their frustration with the president is permanent.
Voting for Biden was the “worst mistake of my life,” says Mohamed Alemara, a 23-year-old medical student of Iraqi descent.
“You don’t kill 30,000 of our people and expect us to vote for you.”
Arab Americans’ vows to ditch Biden often baffle liberal political pundits.
What will Muslims and Arabs do, the thinking goes — vote for Donald Trump, the Republican behind the “Muslim ban” immigration policy, whose supporters flirt with ideas like “Christian nationalism“?
“We’re not a stupid community,” says Luqman. “I’ve survived a Muslim ban, but those kids in Gaza have not survived Joe Biden.”
“My intention is not to vote in an Islamophobe, another genocidal maniac,” she adds. Yet she tells AFP, “the only way I would vote for Biden is if he resurrected” the Gaza dead.
In America’s two-party system, where voters often hold their nose to pick candidates they don’t back 100 percent, 27-year-old nurse Fatima Elzaghir says that “at this point, the lesser evil is Trump.”
Others, like Alawieh, reject the premise of the question.
“How dare you come to me and say, ‘Oh, but later, Trump will be your fault,’” he says.
“Call your representative. Tell them you want a ceasefire.... Once we stop the bloodshed, then we can talk about the political consequences.”
Biden will also have to deal with Michigan’s unions — where some are defecting from the labor-friendly president’s camp.
Many union and workingclass voters already support Republicans, drawn in by their conservative social policies.
But for Merwan Beydoun, a steel mill worker and member of the United Autoworkers Union, Gaza was the breaking point.
“Furious” at Biden, whom the UAW endorsed, Beydoun stopped his contributions to the union’s political arm.
Beydoun says he still believes “in a lot of Democratic policies” and would rather not say how he’ll vote in November. But to earn Beydoun’s vote, the president “needs to wake up” and “change his ways.”
The Biden administration has tried to assuage Arab and Muslim voters’ concerns in part by portraying the president as frustrated with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.
But US weapons have flowed to Israel since October 7, while Washington’s efforts to broker a second pause in fighting have failed, and on Tuesday the US blocked a UN Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire.
“My intention is to punish Biden for what he’s doing now,” says Luqman. “For the betrayal that he’s done to me and all the community members that have voted for him.”


Philippine coast guard says Chinese claim of intrusion ‘inaccurate’

Philippine coast guard says Chinese claim of intrusion ‘inaccurate’
Updated 22 February 2024
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Philippine coast guard says Chinese claim of intrusion ‘inaccurate’

Philippine coast guard says Chinese claim of intrusion ‘inaccurate’
  • Located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone, the Scarborough Shoal is also claimed by China

MANILA/BEIJING: A Philippine coast guard official on Thursday described as “inaccurate” its Chinese counterpart’s claim that a fisheries vessel “illegally intruded” into Beijing’s waters.
The Chinese coast guard said earlier on Thursday it drove away a vessel of the Philippines’ Bureau of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources (BFAR) and accused them of “illegally intruding” into its waters near Scarborough Shoal.
“This statement is inaccurate. The BFAR vessel, BRP Datu Sanday, continues to patrol the waters of Bajo De Masinloc. Currently, the BFAR vessel is actively ensuring the security of Filipino fishermen in that area,” Commodore Jay Tarriela, the coast guard’s spokesperson on South China Sea issues told reporters.
Located within the Philippines’ exclusive economic zone (EEZ), the Scarborough Shoal is also claimed by China, making it one of Asia’s most contested maritime features and a flashpoint for flare-ups.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea, a conduit for more than $3 trillion in annual ship commerce. Its territorial claims overlap with those of the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Brunei.
In 2016, an international arbitration tribunal in the Hague said China’s claims had no legal basis, a decision Beijing has rejected.


Ukraine leader downplays loss of Avdiivka, seeks faster support

Ukraine leader downplays loss of Avdiivka, seeks faster support
Updated 22 February 2024
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Ukraine leader downplays loss of Avdiivka, seeks faster support

Ukraine leader downplays loss of Avdiivka, seeks faster support
  • Russian troops took control of Avdiivka last week in Moscow’s biggest battlefield gain since its forces captured Bakhmut last May
  • Zelensky pointed to earlier gains made by Ukraine forces, particularly in the northeastern Kharkiv region and destruction of Russian ships

KYIV: President Volodymyr Zelensky downplayed Ukraine’s loss of the eastern town of Avdiivka to Russian forces and called for faster support from allies as the war against Russia neared the two-year mark, in comments broadcast on Wednesday.

Russian troops took control of Avdiivka last week in Moscow’s biggest battlefield gain since its forces captured Bakhmut last May. Kremlin leader Vladimir Putin says Russia will press on with its drive through eastern Ukraine.
Zelensky, in excerpts from an interview with Fox News to be aired on Thursday, acknowledged that last year had been “complicated” for Ukraine, particularly as 2023 came to a close.
But, speaking in English, he pointed to earlier gains, particularly in the northeastern Kharkiv region, where the Fox interview took place.
“During these two years we got (back) part of the Kharkiv region. Now we are in this region ... and we unblocked the Black Sea. There are grain routes and we destroyed a lot of their ships of the Russian fleet,” Zelensky said.
“That is what we did over two years. And what they could do? Only this one place. But what for?“
Avdiivka lies 15 km (nine miles) northwest of the Russian-held main town of Donetsk region, also named Donetsk.
Russian analysts say its capture will keep Donetsk safe from Ukrainian shelling as Moscow considers how to pursue its drive to capture all of Donetsk and Luhansk regions.
In his comments, Zelensky expressed new discontent with the slowdown in Western aid for Ukraine’s war effort, without singling out the United States.
US President Joe Biden’s request to extend a big aid package has been held up by wrangling in the US Congress.
“We have to be more quick. That means to lose all the bureaucracy. Otherwise we will not have any chance,” he said.
The president acknowledged that finding an alternative to US support would not be easy.
“Of course, we will find. We will not stay in the same place. We have to survive. We have to find some parallel steps,” he said in the interview, conducted in part on a hospital ward.
“You understand that this help is crucial. So without it, sorry, we will have more and more such heroic guys who will be in the hospitals. If you don’t have a real defending shield and similar powerful artillery with rounds, of course you will lose people.”
The US Senate has passed a $95 billion aid package that includes funds for Ukraine, but House of Representatives Speaker Mike Johnson has declined to bring it up for a vote on the floor of the House.


Kremlin says ‘shameful’ for Biden to call Putin ‘SOB’

Kremlin says ‘shameful’ for Biden to call Putin ‘SOB’
Updated 22 February 2024
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Kremlin says ‘shameful’ for Biden to call Putin ‘SOB’

Kremlin says ‘shameful’ for Biden to call Putin ‘SOB’
  • He had earlier said there is no doubt that the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Nalvany "was a consequence of something that Putin and his thugs did”
  • Biden tends to go off script during election fundraisers and in recent months has dug into China, the Republican Party, and Israel for its war on Gaza

SAN FRANCISCO/MOSCOW: The Kremlin on Thursday said it was a “huge shame” that US President Joe Biden had called Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin a “crazy SOB.”

Biden made the comments at a speech in San Francisco attended by a small group of reporters, in which he contrasted the risk posed by Putin to the threat of climate change.

“This is a huge shame for the country itself... for the US. If a president uses that kind of language, it’s shameful,” Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said.

“It is clear that Mr. Biden is demonstrating Hollywood cowboy style behavior to serve domestic political interests,” he continued.

Biden has a history of similar hot-mic comments and has been strongly critical of Putin before, announcing in 2022 that the Kremlin chief “cannot remain in power.”

His remarks come as relations with the Kremlin linger at historic lows over the conflict in Ukraine and the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny in jail.

The US President has promised to introduce tough new sanctions against Moscow over Navalny’s death, which the White House has blamed on the Kremlin.

“This is the last existential threat. It is climate. We have a crazy SOB like that guy Putin and others and we always have to worry about nuclear conflict, but the existential threat to humanity is climate,” Biden told a small group of donors.

Biden has previously cursed “son of a bitch” at others. In January 2022, he was caught on the hot mic using the same term of abuse against a Fox News White House reporter.

Biden tends to go off script during election fundraisers and in recent months has dug into the Chinese government, the Republican Party, and US ally Israel for its bombing of the Gaza Strip.

Biden’s verbal attacks against Putin have also sharply intensified at the White House and on the campaign trail.

Biden and Putin remain deeply at odds over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine two years ago, over which Russia has been sanctioned by the United States and other Western nations. Biden’s reactions have put a further chill into already bitter US-Russian relations.

Biden’s expected Republican opponent in November, former President Donald Trump, has expressed admiration for Putin both during his 2017-2021 White House tenure and afterward. However, he also recently compared himself to Navalny, implying that they both had faced politically motivated prosecutions.

“I don’t know where the hell this comes from,” Biden said on Wednesday reacting to Trump comparing himself to Navalny.