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Oct. 31, 2022, 6:30 AM EDT
Biden lost temper with Zelenskyy in June phone call when Ukrainian leader asked for more aid
Biden had barely finished telling Zelenskyy he’d just greenlighted another $1 billion in military assistance when the Ukrainian president started listing all the additional help he needed.
It’s become routine since Russia invaded Ukraine: President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speak by phone whenever the U.S. announces a new package of military assistance for Kyiv.
But a phone call between the two leaders in June played out differently from previous ones, according to four people familiar with the call. Biden had barely finished telling Zelenskyy he’d just greenlighted another $1 billion in U.S. military assistance for Ukraine when Zelenskyy started listing all the additional help he needed and wasn’t getting. Biden lost his temper, the people familiar with the call said. The American people were being quite generous, and his administration and the U.S. military were working hard to help Ukraine, he said, raising his voice, and Zelenskyy could show a little more gratitude.
Administration officials said Biden and Zelenskyy’s relationship has only improved since the June phone call, after which Zelenskyy made a statement praising the U.S. for its generous assistance. But the clash reflects Biden’s early awareness that both congressional and public support for sending billions of dollars to Ukraine could begin to fade. That moment has arrived just as the president prepares to ask Congress to greenlight even more money for Ukraine.
President Joe Biden speaks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy from the Oval Office of the White House on Dec. 9, 2021. Susan Walsh / AP file
Biden now faces resistance from some Republicans and Democrats that wasn’t present when Congress approved previous Ukraine funds. The White House has discussed asking Congress for billions of dollars during the lame-duck legislative session after the midterm elections.
The White House hasn’t specified an amount publicly. Lawmakers and Ukraine lobbyists hope for $40 billion to $60 billion, and some officials familiar with the discussions expect the number to be roughly $50 billion.
A source familiar with the conversation said that Biden was direct with Zelenskyy about handling the issues in the appropriate military channels but that the exchange wasn’t heated or angry.
A spokesperson for the National Security Council declined to comment on the story.
A spokesperson for Zelenskyy didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Top U.S. officials warn there are no signs the war is ending any time soon.
Ukrainian soldiers prepare to fire a BM-21 'Grad' multiple rocket launcher near Kharkiv, on Oct. 4, 2022.Yasuyoshi Chiba / AFP - Getty Images
Before the June 15 phone call, the president’s frustrations with Zelenskyy had been building for weeks, three people familiar with the call said. Biden and some of his top aides felt that the administration was doing as much as it could as quickly as it could but that Zelenskyy continued to focus publicly on only what wasn’t being done.
From Zelenskyy’s perspective — as well as that of some Eastern European governments and U.S. lawmakers from both parties — there has been repeated frustration that the Biden White House moves too slowly on weapons requests, initially hesitating to approve certain capabilities Ukraine requested most urgently, only to relent weeks or months later under pressure, according to two sources familiar with the Ukraine government’s view, congressional aides and two European officials.
After the pushback Zelenskyy got in their June phone call, his team decided to try to defuse tensions, concluding it wasn’t productive to have friction with the U.S. president, according to two sources familiar with the Ukraine government’s view, congressional aides and two European officials.
Zelenskyy responded publicly that day by thanking Biden for the promised assistance.
“I had an important conversation with U.S. President Biden today,” he said in videotaped remarks. “I am grateful for this support. It is especially important for our defense in Donbas.”