Ukraine’s imposing top lawmaker launches a charm offensive in DC

The first thing apparent about Ruslan Stefanchuk, the head of the Ukrainian Parliament, is his imposing size. 

Dressed in all-black, military-style fatigues, Stefanchuk was a towering figure this week standing next to American officials and lawmakers who barely reached his shoulders.

In his first trip to Washington this past week, Stefanchuk held meetings with the White House, the Pentagon and Capitol Hill as part of a senior Ukrainian delegation advocating for continued American support for Kyiv, and as he put it, “looking the interlocutors in the eyes.”

“I came here to share Ukraine’s successes, and I came to say that Ukraine still needs the support and we can’t stop halfway,” he said in an interview with The Hill, speaking through a translator. 

While Stefanchuk gives off the impression of a brick wall, he is a seasoned politician and quick to provide a smile and a handshake. He was elected chair of the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s Parliament, in October 2021.

“If Stefanchuk is what’s in parliament, I’d hate to go up against the guys on the battlefield!” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Hill.

Ruslan Stefanchuk (center) and senior Ukrainian officials meet with House lawmakers on Capitol Hill. “If Stefanchuk is what’s in parliament, I’d hate to go up against the guys on the battlefield!” Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told The Hill. (Vadym Sarakhan / Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine)

Stefanchuk is first in the line of succession should Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky be unable to serve, which seemed a distinct possibility in the early days of Russia’s full-scale invasion, when assassins reportedly stalked the streets of Kyiv to kill the president.

Biden officials have said they are supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes to resist Russian President Vladimir Putin’s goal of subsuming the country. But Zelensky’s senior aides are facing tough questions in Washington about Ukraine’s military strategy for victory and its use of billions of dollars in advanced, Western-supplied armor and firepower — especially as their generals suggest the war is at a stalemate.

Stefanchuk was in Washington this past week alongside Andriy Yermak, the head of the office of the President of Ukraine, and Ukraine’s Defense Minister Rustem Umerov, among other officials.  

“Ukraine is currently preparing a very detailed action plan that includes the timelines and that includes the financial resources to deliver the expected results,” Stefanchuk said, amid warnings from Kyiv that it needs more and better weapons to shift the war. 

“We are getting ready to share this plan with our partners,” he added, but he would not provide any more details. 

Ruslan Stefanchuk (third from left) meets with Republican senators alongside a senior Ukrainian delegation in Washington, D.C. “I came here to share Ukraine’s successes and I came to say that Ukraine still needs the support and we can’t stop halfway,” Stefanchuk said. (Vadym Sarakhan / Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine)

President Biden’s request for an estimated $60 billion in military and other assistance for Ukraine has stalled on Capitol Hill, with Republicans demanding Democrats deliver on immigration reform before they agree on more aid for Kyiv. 

House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has drawn a hard line with the White House, saying additional funding for Ukraine is “dependent upon enactment of transformative change to our nation’s border security laws.” 

Stefanchuk, commenting on his meeting with Johnson at an event at the Atlantic Council on Thursday, said he is “convinced” the Speaker “will do everything possible to enact the assistance to Ukraine as soon as possible.”

“The meeting with Speaker Johnson was very warm and quite friendly, and I want to thank Speaker Johnson for — we found some common ground in all matters,” he told the Washington-based think tank. 

“We spoke about the most challenging questions regarding the assistance to Ukraine, he assured me that the matter of supporting Ukraine is a priority matter for the House of Representatives. I believe it was a very nice meeting.”

Even as a majority of Republican lawmakers support funding for Ukraine, a handful of hard-line conservatives have earlier demonstrated they can freeze House business over their demands. If the Senate is able to hammer out a deal that links aid to Kyiv and border reforms, some Ukraine skeptics in the House have said a border bill would need to be passed first, before Ukraine aid.   

In September, Zelensky left a meeting with former Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) with a warning that his commitment to deliver aid for Ukraine would not be “simple.” 

McCarthy was ousted from leadership in October over his cooperation with Democrats on a government funding bill, but hard-line GOP lawmakers also successfully blocked McCarthy from holding a vote on Biden’s initial request of $14 billion in supplemental funding for Ukraine. 

Ukraine’s Republican supporters recognize the stakes as Congress heads toward Christmas vacation having yet to deliver on Biden’s fiscal 2024 national security supplemental funding request. The entire request reaches nearly $111 billion, including priorities for Ukraine, Israel, the Indo-Pacific and immigration.

“We want to help Ukraine and Israel, but we have to have Democrats recognize that the trade here is, the deal is, we stop the open border,” Sen Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said Tuesday after storming out of a classified briefing on Ukraine. 

Republicans are further split among those who support military assistance to Ukraine but balk at providing economic assistance to Kyiv. 

“I’ve always been in favor of munitions and military equipment, but I am not in favor of continuing just blank financial support,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Idaho), the fourth-ranking Republican in the Senate, told The Hill in September.

“I think our friends and allies in Europe can do that. Let’s be the arsenal of democracy and provide what they need to win the war, but our friends and allies can step up with humanitarian aid.”

The European Union has pledged more economic assistance than the U.S. ($83 billion compared to $25 billion) during the war, according to the Kiel Institute Ukraine Tracker, but the EU has only delivered 31 percent of the total commitments, compared to the U.S. delivering 87 percent of its commitments. 

Amid partisan battles in the U.S. holding up more assistance for Ukraine, cracks within European solidarity are also threatening the delivery of more assistance.

Hungary’s right-wing prime minister Viktor Orbán is blocking EU efforts to follow through on a five-year economic commitment of 50 billion euros (about $54 billion). 

As democracies struggle to deliver on continued support for Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin has demonstrated his ability to counter international sanctions aimed at bankrupting his economy and strangling his war machine.

Partnerships with China, Iran and North Korea and ties with Gulf nations part of the OPEC group of oil-producing nations have helped Putin survive.

And the death of mercenary group-head Yevgeny Prigozhin in a plane crash in August removed one of the few prominent and powerful domestic critics of Putin’s war.

Russia is dug in on Ukrainian territory in the east of the country, including territory it has held since 2014; the eastern provinces of Donetsk, Luhansk and the Crimean peninsula. 

Ukrainian officials point to their success in pushing Russia off of an estimated 50 percent of territory since the start of the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion on Feb. 24.

But an analysis by the Washington Post found Ukraine had reclaimed about 200 square miles of territory during its summer counteroffensive, compared to 8,610 square miles reclaimed in 2022. 

Kyiv’s slow and costly gains during the summer have raised the possibility that peace talks with Putin may have to occur with Russian forces entrenched on Ukrainian territory. It’s a possibility Washington has reportedly, but not publicly, broached with Ukraine. 

There’s even more uncertainty looking ahead to the 2024 U.S. presidential elections. Former President Trump, the front-runner for the Republican nomination, has boasted he could reach a peace deal between Putin and Zelensky within 24 hours. He has largely avoided questions about what Ukraine should give up. 

Stefanchuk rejected that Ukraine would trade any territory as part of a peace deal with Russia. 

“Our position is absolutely clear, and as of now, the only diplomatic negotiations that can be held with Russia are the negotiations on the terms of Putin’s capitulation,” he said.  

Asked about the potential for a second Trump administration, Stefanhcuk pointed to the importance for Ukraine of maintaining strong U.S. support in general, across party lines. 

“When it comes to the elections in the United States, this is a domestic issue of the USA, and we’re not going to interfere in this question, and it’s totally up to the United States,” he said. 

“Ukraine really appreciates the bipartisan support that it has been enjoying, and it’s really important that the U.S. continues to support us because Ukraine’s best sons and daughters are dying today protecting the democratic values.”

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