When Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko addressed a joint meeting of Congress on Thursday morning, he wasn’t just talking to the lawmakers gathered in the room. He was sending a message to Moscow.
For years, Russia has tried to keep Ukraine and other former Soviet republics under its sphere of influence—and keep Western influence out. But since he was elected in May, Poroshenko has promised to wrench an embattled Ukraine from Moscow’s control and align it with Europe. Poroshenko’s visit to Washington on Thursday was a show of solidarity with the United States, and he wanted Russian President Vladimir Putin to know it.
“How symbolic is the unity of United States Congress and solidarity with Ukraine,” Poroshenko said as he opened his speech, with Vice President Joe Biden and House Speaker John Boehner sitting behind him.
Poroshenko said that Ukraine’s standoff with Russia is not just Ukraine’s problem. “It is Europe’s and it is America’s war, too,” he said. “It is a war for the free world. For the free world. Today, aggression against Ukraine is a threat to the global security everywhere.” If pro-Russian separatists “are not stopped now, they will cross European border, a threat absolutely throughout the world.”
Poroshenko came to Capitol Hill to rally more support among U.S. lawmakers, who greeted the leader warmly with sustained applause on Thursday. The visit seems to have worked. After the speech, the White House announced it would provide a $53 million aid package to Ukraine: $46 million for Ukraine’s military and border security, and $7 million for humanitarian aid.
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The assistance stops short of giving Ukraine what it’s really after: weapons. So far, the U.S. has provided only non-lethal aid to Ukrainian forces, such as body armor, ready-to-eat meals, night-vision goggles, and sleeping mats. Poroshenko told Congress on Thursday that his military needs more. “Please understand me correctly. Blankets, night-vision goggles are also important, but one cannot win the war with blankets,” he said. “Even more, we cannot keep the peace with a blanket, and this is most important of our values.”
Poroshenko’s speech was tailored to appeal to American values. He said that democracies must support each other, or else “be eliminated one by one.” He quoted John F. Kennedy. He likened Ukraine’s fight for territorial integrity to that of Israel. And he ended with “live free or die.”
Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Bob Corker, R-Tenn., called Poroshenko’s address a “great speech” and said that he is “absolutely” supportive of providing lethal aid to Ukraine. “It should have been done a long time ago. I mean, we’re sending them used night-vision goggles—some of them have arrived—and [Meals Ready to Eat]. I mean, it’s just embarrassing to me the way our administration has responded to Ukraine,” he said.
Corker said that Congress would soon respond to Poroshenko’s call. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee is expected to pass legislation Thursday afternoon that would provide weapons, drones, anti-tank equipment, and other military aid to the country.
That bill, which is co-sponsored by Corker and committee Chairman Robert Menendez, D-N.J., is expected to pass the committee easily. Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., has called for similar aid. Even Sen. Chris Murphy, a dovish Democrat from Connecticut who has opposed lethal aid to the country, now says he will support the measure in the Foreign Relations Committee later Thursday.
Both Corker and Murphy said they expect the bill to be brought up in the full Senate during the lame-duck session, which begins in November, and expect it to receive bipartisan support. Corker said he believes the House will take up the bill as well. “I heard some of the House members saying they want to see our bill come over. … It’s a good start,” Corker said.
On the House side, Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., said he’d support providing defense equipment to Ukraine.
“In my view, there’s room for additional assistance,” he said after Poroshenko’s speech. “In terms of timing and the manner in which that support is given is very important.”
Poroshenko’s address is the latest public display of solidarity with the West. Two weeks ago, he joined NATO’s “ family photo” during its Wales summit, smiling along with the world leaders who have condemned and sanctioned Russia for its intervention in Ukraine.
Poroshenko will meet with President Obama and Biden this afternoon. All three are well aware of what kind of message such bilateral talks send to Putin.
“Maybe the picture of President Poroshenko sitting in the Oval Office will be worth at least a thousand words, both in English and Russian, I think,” White House press secretary Josh Earnest said Wednesday.
Sarah Mimms and Rachel Roubein contributed to this article.