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Russia responds to Zelenskyy's visit by accusing the U.S. of a proxy war in Ukraine

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Harris hold up a Ukrainian flag while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to Congress on Wednesday evening.
Mandel Ngan
AFP via Getty Images
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Harris hold up a Ukrainian flag while Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks to Congress on Wednesday evening.

As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy returned from Washington, D.C. — having secured billions of dollars in U.S. aid and multiple standing ovations in Congress — the Kremlin was quick to criticize the trip.

The Biden administration announced on Wednesday it would provide an additional $1.85 billion in military assistance to Ukraine, including, for the first time, a Patriot Air Defense System. It's one of the most advanced and expensive defense systems the U.S. has supplied since the start of the war.

The next day, the 301st since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov told reporters that the new equipment will not bring the conflict any closer to an end ("quite the contrary") or prevent Russia from achieving the goals of its so-called "special military operation."

He said there had been no calls for peace or signs of willingness to "listen to Russia's concerns" during Zelenskyy's visit, which he said proves that the U.S. is fighting a proxy war with Russia "to the last Ukrainian," Reuters reports.

This is not the first time Russia has accused Western nations of turning the conflict into a proxy war by supplying Ukraine with weapons. (Iran has acknowledged providing military drones to Russia.)

The Kremlin has also been selling that line to the Russian public, who is largely buying it, says Sergey Radchenko, a Russian history professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

"You could say that the majority of Russian people, although they are weary of the conflict, they still see this as an existential struggle between Russia and the West in which Ukraine is being played for a pawn," he tells NPR's Morning Edition.

Radchenko says despite Russia's military setbacks, President Vladimir Putin is doubling down — albeit carefully, such as when he describes it as a "partial" mobilization — to convince his people that they "have no choice but to support the government on this, because if Ukraine and the West have their way, then Russia will simply disappear."

He doesn't see any signals that Putin would entertain peace negotiations at this point.

Putin could "stop this war today if he wants," Amanda Sloat, senior director for Europe on the National Security Council, tells Morning Edition.

Dismissing accusations of a proxy war, Sloat says Zelenskyy and Ukraine have made clear that they want a "just peace," and all the U.S. has been doing is help the country defend itself against Russian aggression.

Moscow had warned last week that it would see the reported delivery of Patriot missiles to Ukraine as "another provocative move by the U.S." Does Sloat worry this could provoke a Russian escalation?

"Patriots are a defensive weapons system that will help Ukraine defend itself as Russia sends missile after missile and drone after drone to try and destroy Ukrainian infrastructure and kill Ukrainian civilians," she said. "If Russia doesn't want their missiles shot down, Russia should stop sending them into Ukraine."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rachel Treisman (she/her) is a writer and editor for the Morning Edition live blog, which she helped launch in early 2021.