As U.S. rushes to send military aid, Ukrainians applaud lobbying effort

KYIV — As officials in Washington said $61 billion in desperately needed aid would begin flowing to Ukraine’s military, officials and activists in the Ukrainian capital credited an effort by a coalition of political and civil society actors — all united by the fear that Ukraine could be defeated in its existential battle against Russia.

American, Ukrainian and European officials, Ukrainian Americans, Nobel laureates, academics, soldiers’ mothers, evangelical pastors and a host of others joined in a months-long lobbying campaign to overcome the obstruction of the bill by hard-right Republicans. It was not always coordinated but was laser-focused on getting the legislation through Congress.

Now, they hope the arms will arrive in time to blunt the advance of Russia’s invading forces, who capitalized on the delay in assistance to seize more territory and the momentum in the war. But with some experts predicting the fight will last years, the lobbying network is now another crucial element that can be activated in Ukraine’s defense.

“Numerous groups from different angles approached Congress from different angles. And it succeeded,” said Victoria Voytsitska, a former member of the Ukrainian parliament, who traveled to Washington last week with a group of senior European officials. “It was a hectic week on the Hill, and I think everyone understood that this is a historical moment.”

“There is a saying, ‘the more the merrier,’” Voytsitska said.

Last week, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) finally put the package up for a vote, relying on Democrats to get it approved.

“I take a taxi to the airport in Washington with a sense of relief,” human rights lawyer Oleksandra Matviichuk tweeted after the vote in the House. Last week, Matviichuk, co-winner of the 2022 Nobel Peace Prize, met with congressional members to describe the abuses that Russia’s invading forces have inflicted upon Ukraine.

There was no breakthrough moment or meeting, and no one group could take credit for swaying the needed majority of representatives to back the bill, Matviichuk told The Washington Post.

Ukrainian civil society, she said, has “this approach, which is called ‘we are a drop in the ocean,’ which means that we all, all the efforts, are modest because we are not gods, we are human beings,” Matviichuk said. “But together … we can change the reality for better.”

Matviichuk was brought to Capitol Hill by Razom, a Ukrainian American human rights group, which helped coordinate the lobbying effort among nongovernmental organizations.

Razom, which means “together” in Ukrainian, also organized meetings for members of Congress with American mothers whose sons have died fighting in Ukraine, Ukrainian children who were deported to Russia, and scores of others who could speak firsthand about the war.

Razom helped set up an exhibit in Johnson’s home district in Louisiana where visitors donned goggles to virtually tour destroyed sites in Ukraine.

As part of a nationwide campaign, they also aired television and radio spots and bought billboard ads highlighting that Russian forces have destroyed hundreds of churches and tortured and killed Christian pastors.

One such billboard popped up across the street from the church Johnson attends in his district. “We pushed on every lever,” said Mykola Murskyj, director of advocacy at Razom.

“We did things like bring over shrapnel from Ukraine, from cruise missiles that exploded in civilian areas, and put it on their desk and say, look, this is what we’re up against,” Murskyj said. “You know, this landed in somebody’s house, and now it’s in your office.”

Murskyj said his organization had a “come-to-Jesus moment” at the end of January, when they realized that the aid legislation could fail.

“The intensity was high; there was energy in the air. And we realized that we needed to do everything that we possibly could to make this happen.” Murskyj said, adding that there were “dozens of organizations, and hundreds if not thousands of individuals, who worked hard” to get the legislation passed.

At the center of the effort was a push to convince Johnson, who spoke to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky directly about the bill, as well as with other government officials and civil society activists.

Johnson indicated early on that he would support the legislation if his main questions were addressed, those involved in the talks said. Over time, he became an ally.

“I think the most effective thing [the Zelensky administration] did was, they listened, and then they gave the speaker space to work the issue,” said a person familiar with Johnson’s position, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the political sensitivity of the issue. “They took him at his word after that meeting with Zelensky in December.”

“Up until that point, it had really been an aggressive pressure campaign,” the person said. “And really, from my view, it was having the opposite effect because it was just making the people who were ‘never Ukraine-ers’ say, ‘They’re just eviscerating you; they’re not interested in giving you space or what’s in America’s interests.’”

European officials also added pressure, bolstering the threat assessments that the speaker was getting from the U.S. military by mentioning the Ukraine issue to Johnson repeatedly during visits to Washington.

For Johnson, a Southern Baptist, arguments from fellow members of the evangelical community were particularly important, those involved in the process said. The speaker met numerous groups of religious leaders from the United States and Ukraine who pushed him to pass the aid bill.

American evangelicals helped dispel a narrative circulating in the conservative media that Ukraine was persecuting Christian communities, pointing out that it was in fact Russia that was restricting religious freedom.

This month, two Southern Baptist organizations wrote to Johnson before the vote. “The Russian government’s decision to invade Ukraine and to target Baptists and other evangelical Christians in Ukraine has been a tragic hallmark of the war,” the Land Center for Cultural Engagement in Fort Worth wrote.

“We desire peace. But more than that, we desire a peace that is based on the principles of justice,” the letter said.

Johnson also met with groups of Ukrainian evangelicals.

The week before the vote, Johnson spoke with Serhii Haidarzhy, an evangelical pastor whose wife, Anna, and 4-month-old son, Tymofii, died in March in a drone strike on their apartment building in Odessa.

Haidarzhy and his 2-year-old daughter, Lizi, survived the strike. When he met Johnson, Haidarzhy showed him photographs of the drone, “the same Iranian-made drones that attacked Israel just a few days before,” said Pavlo Unguryan, a Ukrainian pastor who helped arrange the meeting and was present.

“It was a very emotional meeting,” Unguryan said.

A photo posted on social media showed the three men standing together, holding a box of chocolates with Ukrainian scenes on it.

Unguryan has known Johnson for more than a year — “a deep relationship,” he said. In January, he attended a “day of prayer and repentance” at the Museum of the Bible in D.C., where Johnson was a featured guest and Unguryan was invited to deliver a prayer for Ukraine.

Unguryan and Johnson had time for only “a handshake and to hug each other,” he said. “I asked everyone, including congressmen, to please pray about Ukraine.”

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