WASHINGTON -- A bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers has called on the administration of Joe Biden to reschedule a visit by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in order to allow Congress an opportunity to meet the head of state, saying the White House appears to be “play[ing] politics.”
The Biden administration said this week that Zelenskiy would make his long-awaited first official visit to Washington since taking office more than two years ago on August 30, when Congress is on summer recess.
In a July 22 letter to Biden, the four co-chairs of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus said the White House “seems [to be] seeking to prevent the Congress from directly engaging President Zelenskiy” by scheduling the meeting during the recess.
Ukraine has historically enjoyed strong, bipartisan support in Congress since winning its independence from Moscow nearly 30 years ago and some of its presidents have met with U.S. lawmakers during their visits.
Zelenskiy’s Western-learning predecessors -- former Presidents Viktor Yushchenko and Petro Poroshenko -- both addressed full sessions of Congress on their first official visits to Washington.
The Biden administration made the announcement of the visit on July 21, the same day it said it had reached an agreement with Germany over the completion of a controversial Russian natural-gas pipeline designed to circumvent Ukraine.
Congress has vehemently opposed Nord Stream 2, as the pipeline is known, saying it will deprive Ukraine of crucial transit revenue -- estimated to be as much as $2 billion a year -- and threaten its national security.
It has twice passed sanctions legislation to stop the completion of the pipeline with overwhelming bipartisan support, delaying its launch by at least a year.
However, in its July 21 deal with Germany, the Biden administration agreed not to impose new sanctions to try to stop the project’s completion in exchange for a series of steps by Berlin to help Ukraine.
Those measures include attempts by Germany to push Russia to continue to use Ukraine as a transit nation for another decade once the current contract expires at the end of 2024.
The Biden administration contends that Nord Stream 2 would be completed regardless of it imposing more sanctions and it would only serve to hurt relations with Germany, a key NATO ally.
Nonetheless, many U.S. lawmakers as well as Ukrainian officials have expressed opposition to the deal with Germany. Zelenskiy last month said he was disappointed to hear that Biden did not intend to stop the project.
Analysts say the Biden administration doesn’t like the optics of Zelenskiy meeting with Congress to jointly oppose the deal it had reached with Germany.
In their July 22 letter, Representatives Marcy Kaptur (Democrat-Ohio), Mike Quigley (Democrat-Illinois), Brian Fitzpatrick (Republican-Pennsylvania), and Andy Harris (Republican-Maryland), said they were also “troubled by the appearance” that the Biden administration was using a White House meeting to “persuade” Ukraine to accept the Nord Stream 2 deal.
During a call with the media on July 21, a senior State Department official denied any pressure on Ukraine to accept the U.S.-Germany deal and said the publication of the date of Zelenskiy's visit on the same day was coincidental.
Zelenskiy, a former comedian and political novice, has been seeking a White House visit since he took office in May 2019 to demonstrate U.S. support for his administration.
The United States has been Ukraine’s staunchest supporter in its seven-year war against Russia-backed rebels in the east that has cost the lives of more than 13,200 people and a White House visit would help his image at home and abroad, analysts have said.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump invited Zelenskiy to the White House in 2019, but that meeting never took place after the U.S. leader was accused of pressuring his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate the Kyiv activities of Hunter Biden, the son of his main Democratic rival at the time.
The executive branch “on both sides of the aisle should no longer play politics with a meeting with Ukraine’s president,” the representatives said in their letter.