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Zelenskyy comes to Ottawa as Ukraine scrambles to shore up allies’ support

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy touched down in Ottawa late Thursday night — and experts say the political headwinds he’ll face in Canada likely will be less chilly than those he experienced in Washington. 

Support for Ukraine among U.S. Republicans has softened in the past year.

A man with short cropped hair wearing a green button-down jacket walks through a crowd in a government building.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy touched down in Ottawa late Thursday night — and experts say the political headwinds he’ll face in Canada likely will be less chilly than those he experienced in Washington.

Zelenskyy is on a two-day visit which will conclude with a stop in Toronto for a meeting with the business community.

It’s his first trip to Canada since the full Russian invasion last year.

Along with his new defence minister, Rustem Umerov, Zelenskyy will meet and brief federal cabinet ministers on the progress the Ukrainian military has made since it launched a counteroffensive in June to drive Russian forces out of the country.

It’s expected Ottawa will announce further military and social assistance while Zelenskyy is in the country. There will also be a formal welcoming ceremony on Parliament Hill today.

During a whirlwind stop in Washington on Thursday, Zelenskyy received a more subdued reception than the hero’s welcome he got late last year. There was no band to greet him at the Pentagon and U.S. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy — mindful of the Republicans who are tired of funding Ukraine’s war effort — chose not to greet the Ukrainian leader before the cameras.

Two men, one in military fatigues, walk along a sunlit veranda.

Zelenskyy won generally favourable reviews from U.S. lawmakers for his pitch for further war assistance.

Despite the warm words from most congressmen and senators, Zelenskyy left behind a moderately divided Washington. He is expected to face a less skeptical audience in the House of Commons today, where he’ll deliver an address to MPs and senators.

“I don’t see divisions in terms of political support” in Canada, said Dominique Arel, chair of Ukrainian studies at the University of Ottawa. He said political skepticism in Washington is not as wide or deep as it may seem right now.

“Although the Republican party is divided, it’s not going full anti-Ukraine, pro-Trump on that score,” he said.

Zelenskyy needs to show progress, expert says

One of Zelenskyy’s objectives in Ottawa — as it was in Washington — will be to reassure lawmakers that his country is making progress in its counteroffensive in the east and south and Ukraine has a strategy for victory, Arel said.

Eighteen months since the full Russian invasion, he said, the pressure is on Zelenskyy to make a compelling argument to Canadians that his country is engaged in a kind of a high-intensity warfare that Europe hasn’t seen since the 1940s, and that “these are long wars.”

Negotiations with individual allies on security assurances are central to Ukraine’s war effort. At the NATO summit in July, G7 countries pledged to negotiate long-term security arrangements while Ukraine waits to be accepted in NATO.

That will require sustained, predictable funding from allies, including Canada and the U.S.

Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., a member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, talks to reporters as he arrives at the chamber for the final votes of the week, at the Capitol in Washington, Thursday, June 15, 2023.

Coming out of a briefing with Zelenskyy on Capitol Hill on Thursday, U.S. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley dismissively described what he heard from his colleagues and the Ukrainian leader as a plea to “buckle up and get out your chequebook.”

President Joe Biden announced a $325 million aid package for Ukraine after a meeting with Zelenskyy on Thursday. Since the full-scale Russian invasion began in February 2022, the U.S. has delivered more than $40 billion in security assistance to Ukraine.

Recently, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government quietly set aside another $500 million in military aid — it has yet to explain how it’s going to spend it. Canada has committed $1.8 billion in defence hardware and munitions to Ukraine so far.

A distracted America in 2024

An American foreign policy expert said support from smaller countries like Canada could become more crucial in the coming months as the United States becomes more distracted by next year’s upcoming presidential election.

Matthew Schmidt of the University of New Haven said it will become increasingly difficult to get large defence aid packages through Congress in the coming months.

“We’re going to go into an almost certain government shutdown in 2023. In 2024, you’re unlikely to get a major bill because of the election,” Schmidt said in an interview.

“Assuming the best case scenario, with Democrats taking over everything, which isn’t going to happen … you still won’t get appropriations bills with large amounts of money for Ukraine until April 2025.”

That wouldn’t prevent the U.S. president from authorizing smaller packages through executive orders, he added.

Even more significant, said Schmidt, was the news this week that Poland, one of Ukraine’s staunchest allies, will halt military donations following a trade dispute over agriculture. The government in Kyiv is taking Warsaw to the World Trade Organization over grain shipments.

The timing couldn’t be worse, Schmidt said, and it speaks to a blindspot in the Zelenskyy government’s relations with other countries.

“I’m not sure that it was wise by Ukraine to make an argument about, you know, Polish agricultural policy and the receipt of Ukrainian grain,” he said. “I understand Kyiv’s position but in the end, you have to weigh that against the needs of armaments. And I think perhaps they will regret making a decision.”

The Ukrainians need to do a better job of understanding the domestic politics of their allies and how it drives foreign policy, Schmidt said.

“Ukraine needs to understand the domestic policy of the United States in order to understand or predict our foreign policy,” he said. “And it needed to understand Polish domestic policy, the Polish domestic politics and the infighting between the parties and a very tight election that’s coming up.”


Murray Brewster

Senior reporter, defence and security

Murray Brewster is senior defence writer for CBC News, based in Ottawa. He has covered the Canadian military and foreign policy from Parliament Hill for over a decade. Among other assignments, he spent a total of 15 months on the ground covering the Afghan war for The Canadian Press. Prior to that, he covered defence issues and politics for CP in Nova Scotia for 11 years and was bureau chief for Standard Broadcast News in Ottawa.

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