Throughout my 35 years on Capitol Hill working at the Helsinki Commission (1981-2017) I was no stranger to the Capitol itself. But never have I been more thrilled to be in that hallowed building than for President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s December 21 address to a joint session of Congress. This was truly an historic moment that will be long remembered as few other Congressional appearances by foreign leaders have been. Not incorrectly, it has been compared to Winston Churchill’s December 1941 wartime address to Congress.
The Ukrainian president’s remarks were powerful, convincing and enthusiastically received by the overwhelming majority of those present in the chamber.
Ukrainians themselves, starting with Mr. Zelenskyy, have been making a compelling case for why Washington needs to sustain Ukraine in its fight for freedom. His wife, Olena, made a terrific impression when she spoke to members of Congress last July. The numerous visitors to Congress from Ukraine, both high-ranking officials and representatives of civil society, have been effective spokespersons for Ukraine. The Ukrainian Embassy, under the leadership of Ambassador Oksana Markarova, herself a force of nature, and her seasoned Deputy Chief of Mission Yaroslav Brisiuck, has played an instrumental role in garnering support for Ukraine.
So, does that mean we Americans, especially Ukrainian Americans, can kick back and relax? Not by a long shot. Indeed, since Russia’s full-fledged invasion began, we have seen an expansion in advocacy efforts the likes of which I have not seen in my more than four decades of involvement with Ukraine in the nation’s capital. But more on that later.
Ukraine has enjoyed bipartisan Congressional support for more than a century and it is no surprise that it has taken on far greater importance since Russia’s full-fledged invasion. The most visible manifestation of Congress’ commitment has been the more than $100 billion in emergency funding appropriated for Ukraine-related assistance since February 24, 2022. It has come in four separate packages, the most recent being an appropriation of $45 billion announced the week of Mr. Zelenskyy’s address. Any way you slice it, this is an enormous amount of money.
Appropriating badly needed military and financial assistance has been far from the only Congressional action on behalf of Ukraine. Several other bills and resolutions passed in 2022 that also provided important backing for Ukraine, among them the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act of 2022 and the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2023 (NDAA). There have been many other Congressional initiatives in the last year – hearings, briefings, statements, press releases, visits by members and staff to Ukraine itself (often logistically challenging), countless meetings and briefings with the Ukrainian Embassy and visiting Ukrainian officials and civil society representatives. I am especially proud of the work of the Helsinki Commission, which has been incredibly active on Ukraine in the last year.
Congressional support has been crucial in enhancing Ukraine’s ability to fend off Russian aggression and often in encouraging the administration to be more proactive. A substantial majority of Senators and Representatives understand that Ukraine’s fight is our fight, that it is the fight of the entire free and civilized world. Moreover, this Congressional activity and assistance reflect the will of the American people who continue to stand with Ukraine.
It is also bolstered by vigorous advocacy efforts by Ukraine’s many friends in this country, including of course the Ukrainian American community.
The history of advocacy on behalf of Ukraine is a long and storied one and it has evolved over time. Before independence, it was almost exclusively Ukrainian Americans lobbying on behalf of Ukraine. The landscape changed radically post-independence, with the engagement of numerous influential non-Ukrainian American voices. In fact, in comparison to the pre- and immediate post-independence period, advocacy by Ukrainian Americans waned somewhat for many years.
However, starting in 2014, and especially since February 24, 2022, diaspora advocacy has come back in full force.
Since the closure of the Ukrainian National Association office in Washington, D.C., back in 1995, the only Ukrainian American office devoted largely to advocacy in the nation’s capital had been the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America’s (UCCA) Ukrainian National Information Service (UNIS). It has done important advocacy work consistently since 1977, albeit with limited staff. Opportunely, the Washington Ukrainian American advocacy scene has now been greatly enhanced with a new, well-staffed Razom office, consisting largely of young professionals.
As welcome as the presence of two Washington Ukrainian American advocacy offices who prudently often collaborate is, the engagement of all Ukrainian Americans as well as Ukraine’s innumerable other American backers remains essential. Here’s a suggestion for 2023: Sign up to join Razom’s advocacy network, which will include updates with actions you can undertake to reach out to your Senators and Representative. You can do so at this website: https://bit.ly/razom-advocacy. To get regular updates from UNIS, which has long informed grassroots activists through its action alerts, contact the office by email at email@example.com. I recommend doing both.
Despite the successes with respect to Congressional support in 2022, there is still plenty of work ahead in what will be a pivotal year. Advocates need to keep pressing for Congress to provide the requisite concrete military and financial assistance that Ukraine needs. Congress can play a vital role not only in funding military aid but in encouraging the administration to furnish more advanced weaponry to the country. Financial aid is also an absolute necessity given the 30 percent decline in Ukraine’s economy in 2022. Beyond assistance, there will be initiatives dealing with sanctions and various other measures to hold the Russians accountable for their aggression and genocidal actions.
As compelling as both the strategic and moral case for supporting Ukraine is, one must not take anything for granted. Keep in mind that even the most favorably disposed members of Congress must deal with a plethora of issues, both foreign and domestic. The dysfunction among House Republicans, as illustrated by the chaos over the election of the Speaker of the House, may also in some ways complicate funding levels for Ukraine. Advocates will need to keep Ukraine on Congress’ radar screen and keep reminding the American public of the stakes involved. It is incumbent upon each of us to do what we can.