Approval of $61bn aid from US shows Ukraine will not be abandoned, says Zelenskiy

<span>Voldoymyr Zelenskiy said he wanted to get ‘tangible assistance to the soldiers on the frontline as soon as possible’.</span><span>Photograph: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters</span>
Voldoymyr Zelenskiy said he wanted to get ‘tangible assistance to the soldiers on the frontline as soon as possible’.Photograph: Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Reuters

Ukraine’s president has said the vote by the US House of Representatives to pass a long-delayed $61bn (£49bn) military aid package demonstrated that his country would not be abandoned by the west in its effort to fight the Russian invasion.

Volodymyr Zelenskiy said in an interview with US television that Saturday’s vote showed Ukraine would not be “a second Afghanistan”, whose pro-western government collapsed during an US-led pullout in the summer of 2021.

The Ukrainian president urged the US Senate to ratify the aid package rapidly and warned that his country was preparing its defences, fearing there could be a large Russian offensive before the fresh supplies reach the frontline.

“We really need to get this to the final point. We need to get it approved by the Senate … so that we get some tangible assistance for the soldiers on the frontline as soon as possible, not in another six months,” he said.

The Senate is expected to come out of recess on Tuesday to hold its first vote on the package – similar to one it had already voted for in February – with the Joe Biden promising to sign it into law swiftly after it passes Congress.

That would end months of wrangling in which House Republicans aligned with Donald Trump had refused to allow Ukraine aid, which was part of a larger package with money for Israel and Taiwan, to be debated in the lower chamber.

The US has only been able to commit to $300m of military aid to Ukraine this year, after the budget previously authorised by Congress was spent. This has coincided with a deterioration of the frontline position and the loss of Avdiivka in the eastern Donbas, with a shortage of artillery and other munitions blamed.

However, the opposition of Republicans faded after Iran’s drone and missile attack on Israel more than a week ago that used similar tactics to Russian attacks on Ukraine. It also underlined – among some rightwing politicians – the need to provide Israel and Ukraine with further support.

US officials have signalled that some weapons were in European warehouses, ready to be moved into Ukraine at short notice once Biden decides exactly what to supply in the first round after the overall funding has been approved.

Zelenskiy said his immediate priorities were air-defence systems such as the US-made Patriots and long-range missiles such as Atacms, which can travel up to 186 miles (300km) and which the House has called on the Pentagon to provide promptly.

“We need long-range weapons to not lose people on the frontline because we have – we have casualties because we cannot reach that far. Our weapons are not that long-range. We need [that] and air defence. Those are our priorities right now,” Zelenskiy said in an interview with NBC News.

Ukraine is thought to have only two Patriot anti-missile systems, one of which it uses to defend Kyiv, while the other has been deployed closer to the frontline, in effect leaving large parts of the country exposed.

Russia has knocked out several power stations by targeting them with numerous missiles, causing electricity shortages in some parts of Ukraine, including the second city of Kharkiv, home to 1.3 million people. A power station south of Kyiv was destroyed in one night a little more than a week ago in a similar assault.

On Sunday, Moscow accused the US of sacrificing Ukrainian lives by forcing the country into a long war that would end in a defeat for both countries.

Maria Zakharova, a spokesperson for the foreign ministry, said the US wanted Ukraine “to fight to the last Ukrainian” as well as making direct attacks into Russian territory. “Washington’s deeper and deeper immersion in the hybrid war against Russia will turn into a loud and humiliating fiasco for United States such as Vietnam and Afghanistan,” she added.

Bohdan Krotevych, the chief of staff to Ukraine’s Azov brigade, said he was pleasantly surprised by the result of the House vote and praised the efforts of Zelenskiy in lobbying the US and other countries for military support. But Krotevych warned of a possible response from Moscow in the war. “This doesn’t mean that Russia will not start countermeasures as a reaction,” he said.

One expert said he believed the immediate significance of the vote was political, not military. Ben Hodges, a former commanding general of the US army in Europe, said: “The strategic effect will be felt immediately in the Kremlin, where they now realise their plan to wait for us to quit has failed.”

Russia might have hoped that Ukraine could be forced to sue for peace, with no US aid forthcoming before November’s presidential election at least. Now the aid should allow Ukraine to “stabilise the front, buy time to grow and rebuild their army and build up their own defence industrial capacity”, Hodges said.

Ukrainians out and about on a rainy spring day in Kyiv said they were delighted at the outcome. Pavlo, 44, an IT specialist, said he was very grateful. He said: “The politicians have made the right choice and this shows that the US takes the lead role in world scene; I hope that the aid is already somewhere waiting at the border, ready to be on its way.”

Chess-playing Serhii Ivanovich, a retired army colonel, 72, said Ukraine was a peaceful country forced into fighting a war against its larger neighbour. “We have been waiting for this for a very long time. We don’t have enough, we need help. We have the courage, we have the strength but we don’t have the equipment.”