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Zelenskyy defends Ukraine's spending of Western aid

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky
Kholood Eid for NPR
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky

By one account, Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskyy said something convincing when he met with leaders of Congress on Thursday.

Before the meeting, Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy brushed off a question about committing for more funding for Ukraine's defense against Russia.

"Is Zelenskyy elected to Congress? Is he our president?" McCarthy asked. "I have questions for him. Where's the accountability on the money we've already spent?"

After the meeting, McCarthy said Zelenskyy answered his questions and had "made some changes" regarding concerns about corruption.

It's hard to say whether the Ukrainian president really changed McCarthy's mind, or if the whole episode was part of McCarthy's effort to win over recalcitrant Republican lawmakers. Some of McCarthy's caucus seems even more reluctant to fund Ukraine than they are to fund the operations of the U.S. government.

Zelenskyy spent part of this week's visit to the U.S. trying to assure continued backing from Washington. He knows he has President Biden's support — with the two leaders meeting at the White House. And he knows Ukraine enjoys broad bipartisan backing in Congress.

But a faction of right-wing lawmakers has been demanding an end to American funding. That faction has folded criticism of Ukraine into its various demands over the federal budget, which may cause a partial federal government shutdown after September 30.

Zelenskyy spoke to Morning Edition's Steve Inskeep in New York on Wednesday shortly before he joined a special meeting of the United Nations Security Council.

"We are not afraid to start a family. We know that everything will be fine," says Ukrainian soldier Oleksandr Zhulinskyy, 26, two hours after marrying his longtime girlfriend Anastasia "Nastya" Zhulinska, 23, in Kyiv. "We are fighting for our family, for our loved ones. I think we will cope, no matter how long it takes."
Polina Lytvynova/NPR / NPR
"We are not afraid to start a family. We know that everything will be fine," says Ukrainian soldier Oleksandr Zhulinskyy, 26, two hours after marrying his longtime girlfriend Anastasia "Nastya" Zhulinska, 23, in Kyiv. "We are fighting for our family, for our loved ones. I think we will cope, no matter how long it takes."

In the sit-down interview, Zelenskyy insisted he is doing all he can to answer legitimate concerns about his administration's conduct of the war. Days before traveling to the U.S., he removed the defense minister and numerous other senior leaders amid concerns about corruption.

The timing may not have been entirely coincidental.

"We have to be very strict and very fast because we might lose the trust and the support of our partners," he told NPR. Apparently, he discussed the move with Speaker McCarthy, who emerged from their meeting and praised it.

In the Morning Edition interview, Zelenskyy insisted the scandal within the ministry — inflating the price of eggs bought for the troops — had nothing to do with U.S. aid.

"We have zero tolerance for corruption," he said, with him promising to be transparent on the inevitable occasions when it is found.

Other problems will need careful tending as the war goes on. While Ukraine is positioned as the front line of democracy, Ukrainians have lived under martial law since early 2022. The response to Russia's invasion has included limits on large gatherings, restrictions on media and a delay in this fall's parliamentary elections.

In the interview, Zelenskyy did not commit to holding a presidential election in 2024, as peacetime law would require. He said he would be happy to hold a vote, but only after the many problems of balloting in a war zone were resolved.

He insisted that Ukraine remains a "free country" that shares basic democratic values with the United States. "And that's why we are fighting against Russia," he said.

Zelenskyy also faces periodic suggestions that he eventually will have to negotiate with Russia, but has insisted on a complete Russian withdrawal before discussing anything. He said it was impossible to trust the word of Russian leader Vladimir Putin.

"How many times would you need to make the same mistake, really? I believe that with this leader... we can't achieve anything," Zelenskyy said.

Several of the questions in the NPR interview came from Ukrainians, and had been solicited by an NPR's bureau in Kyiv. Inskeep told Zelenksyy of a soldier in uniform, who was married just this week. The young couple said they worried about the future, but were in love, said they would "overcome everything" and they wanted to start a family. Zelenskyy was visibly moved.

What could Zelenskyy promise them about the future?

"I'm not sure they need promises," Zelenskyy replied, saying they had spoken "such strong words." Such people showed why "we will win," he added. "What can I say? I will be with them."

The radio version of this story was produced by Lisa Weiner and edited by Ally Schweitzer. Anton Loboda was the Ukrainian interpreter. NPR's Ukraine correspondent Joanna Kakissis and NPR Kyiv producer Polina Lytvynova contributed reporting from Kyiv.

The digital version was edited by Treye Green.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Steve Inskeep
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Ally Schweitzer
Ally Schweitzer (she/her) is an editor with NPR's Morning Edition. She joined the show in October 2022 after eight years at WAMU, the NPR affiliate in Washington.
Lisa Weiner
Lisa Weiner is a line producer on Morning Edition. For NPR, she's covered the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and traveled to Ukraine to cover the Russian invasion in 2022. Prior to joining NPR, she held positions as an editor at WTOP-FM, as an engineer at Radio Free Asia and recorded audio books for the Library of Congress. Weiner has a master's degree in audio technology from American University. She got her start in radio working the late-night shift as a student DJ in the basement of WRUR-FM at the University of Rochester. Weiner has lived in Tel Aviv, Israel, and Budapest, Hungary.