Q&A: White House Will Persist in Bid for Ukraine Aid, Kirby Says

White House — The Biden administration is looking at options to support Ukraine amid House Republicans’ continued obstruction of a Senate-approved $95 billion foreign aid package that includes $61 billion to support Kyiv in its fight against Russia.

In a Wednesday interview with VOA, National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said President Joe Biden plans to use Thursday’s State of the Union address to emphasize the importance of continued support for Ukraine and highlight his administration’s success in “restoring American leadership.”

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

VOA: How will the president use this opportunity to convince lawmakers and House Speaker Mike Johnson of the urgent need for military support for Ukraine?

John Kirby, White House National Security Communications Adviser: I don’t want to get ahead of the president’s speech. Of course, he’s very much looking forward to the opportunity to talk to the American people, to the Congress, and actually, quite frankly, the world about all the incredible things that he has accomplished in these three and a half years as the president of the United States. From the economy to education, to health care, to employment, as well as on the world stage, and really restoring American leadership on the world stage.

Here’s what American leadership buys you. It buys you convening power. It buys you enormous capability. And it certainly buys you an effort to influence and affect the decision-making and the actions of other leaders around the world, particularly adversaries, in ways that are more in keeping with our national security interests. And supporting Ukraine is certainly first and foremost. That’s about helping Ukrainian soldiers succeed in these fights against Russian aggression, but it’s also a benefit to our national security because the landscape on the European continent has changed. And if we just walk away and let [Russian President Vladimir] Putin have Ukraine, which is what he still wants, then he’s right up against the doorstop of NATO.

VOA: Ukraine is rationing munitions and losing territory in part because of the lack of American support. Do you still see a path forward with the supplemental package or should Ukrainians be preparing themselves for the reality where there is no American assistance?

Kirby: We’re going to keep working with Congress to see if we can get that supplemental passed. It’s that important. We are also working with allies and partners about contributions that they might be able to make, not that they aren’t already making them — they are. But [we’re] seeing what more could maybe be done. And of course, we’re looking inside our own system, inside our own government, and across the administration to see if there’s anything else that we might be able to do to support Ukraine. But we’ve got nothing. None of those efforts are going to be able to replace the volume, the scale that the supplemental would provide us.

VOA: But there might be a Plan B?

Kirby: We have never not looked at what other opportunities we might have before us. But whatever they are, they’re not going to be as good as the supplemental. There’s no replacing the supplemental. As I’ve said many times, it’s not like there’s some magical source out there that can do what the supplemental can do. But are we looking at options? We absolutely are. We have to, given the situation on the ground — particularly in the east.

VOA: But do you still believe the supplemental may pass?

Kirby: It’s difficult to say with any certainty. That’s really going to be up to Speaker Johnson. We know — and Speaker Johnson knows — that if you put that to the floor, it’ll pass. There’s plenty of bipartisan support for that; both sides of the aisle in the House. No question about that. The question is really: Will he put it to the floor? And only he can answer that question.

VOA: Six countries, including the United Kingdom, Canada, Italy, Germany, Denmark and France, recently signed bilateral security agreements with Kyiv that are meant to give Ukraine security reassurance before Ukraine joins NATO. Should we expect such an agreement between the United States and Ukraine soon?

Kirby: We have long been working with the Ukrainians, obviously making sure that they have what they need in this war, talking to them about what they’re going to need whenever the war ends, because whenever and however the war ends, they’re still going to have a long border with Russia that they’re going to need to safeguard. So, yes, the United States is talking to our Ukrainian counterparts about what more we can do over the long term to help make sure that they can defend their own national security interests and [those of] the Ukrainian people. I don’t have anything to announce or speak to right now, but these are conversations we’re having with the Ukrainians.

VOA: More on the State of the Union: How will the president address the worsening situation in Gaza and U.S. strategic competition with China?

Kirby: Again, I’m not going to get ahead of the president’s speech, but I would point you to the things that he has said before. On Israel: How important it is to make sure Israel can defend itself against the still viable threat by Hamas, making sure that more humanitarian assistance gets in [to Gaza, and] making sure we get the hostages out. Trying to get this new hostage deal in place so that we can get a six-week temporary cease-fire to reduce the suffering on the ground and again try to find ways to help alleviate suffering of the Palestinian people.

And on China, as you know, the president wrapped up not too long ago a meeting with President Xi [Jinping] in San Francisco. Good, constructive dialogue. We’re not going to agree with China on everything, but the president believes strongly that this is the most consequential bilateral relationship in the world, and it’s incumbent upon both of us as two major powers — and both of them as two major leaders — to handle that relationship in a responsible way.

VOA: The president warned of a “dangerous” situation if there is no cease-fire by Ramadan. What did he mean by that? Is he warning of more bloodshed and potential regional spillover?

Kirby: He’s referring to the fact that Ramadan is obviously the holiest time of the year for Muslims and it’s also a sensitive time, particularly in the Middle East, where actions take on an even larger meaning and can have an outsized impact. And so, we all want this temporary cease-fire in place as soon as possible. We obviously would have preferred to have it in place already. It’s not, we’re still working at that. But we recognize that as you get closer to Ramadan, whatever actions get taken is done in the context of this holiest of time for Muslims around the world.

VOA: Both the first lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, and the widow of a deceased Russian opposition leader Yulia Navalnaya declined the invitation to attend Biden’s State of the Union address. What message was the administration trying to convey by inviting them both?

Kirby: We certainly respect their desires in terms of not attending, but obviously Ukraine is such a key partner here. And they have been fighting bravely now for a little bit over two years. And, certainly, this was an opportunity to recognize America’s commitment to Ukraine, and to the fighting, the courage and resilience of the Ukrainian people.

Again, we all mourned the passing of Alexey Navalny, and we all recognize his courage, his bravery, and we all of course continue to hold the Kremlin accountable for what happened to him. The president had a chance to meet with his wife and his sister to express his personal condolences and the condolences of the entire American people

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