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Rep. Elissa Slotkin on her visit to Ukraine and meeting with President Zelenskyy


Five months and one day after Russia invaded Ukraine, what is Ukraine doing with the weapons and other support that the U.S. is providing? And more broadly, what's the state of the war, with both sides said to be gearing up for major new offensives? Well, my guest now got to put those questions directly to President Zelenskyy in Kyiv over the weekend. Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin sits on the House Armed Services Committee. She is just back as of last night from traveling as part of a bipartisan congressional delegation to Ukraine, and she's in our studio now.

Elissa Slotkin, Democrat of Michigan, good to see you. Welcome back.

ELISSA SLOTKIN: Good to see you.

KELLY: All right. So I know you've been to Ukraine before, but this was your first trip since the war began. And you visited not just Kyiv but outside Kyiv a little bit, a couple of places that were really hard hit early in the war like Bucha. What does it look like now?

SLOTKIN: Well, it's kind of a mix. I mean, you get into Ukraine, and there are people on the streets. There are people at the monuments. You notice a lack of children, that's for sure. It's definitely sort of young adults and older adults.

KELLY: Because so many are still evacuated.


KELLY: And they're not back yet.

SLOTKIN: Yeah, I think a lot of families still haven't come back. But a lot of sort of young adults are there. The restaurants are open.

But then you go out, you know, not too far, 5 kilometers north of Kyiv, and you go to a place like Irpin, which is the last suburban area town right before Kyiv, where they literally stopped the Russians in their tracks. And, you know, the mayor takes you on a tour. That mayor was the head of the Civil Defense Forces who worked with the military to hold back what would have been just a thunder run by the Russians right into Kyiv. So it's pretty amazing to see, A, what the Ukrainian will did to hold off the Russians but then also just the sheer destruction and the, frankly, in Bucha, just war crimes, I mean, mass graves that the Russians left in their wake. So it's pretty breathtaking.

KELLY: You sat down with President Zelenskyy on Saturday. How is he holding up? I mean, what is your read on his mood? I imagine he's exhausted like everyone in Ukraine. And yet they're talking about, we're going to try to retake Kherson, the port city.

SLOTKIN: Yeah. I mean, look, he's risen to the moment, right? I mean, he is a wartime president. And when he talks to you - we were with him for 90 minutes - he is in the weeds. He understands what's happening on the eastern flank and on the southern flank and what's happening - he feels very firmly that it is his job to advocate for Ukraine. And so, of course, he's always asking for more and faster, as he should. I think the thing that really took me was while Ukraine is falling out of the headlines here in the United States, the next, you know, three to six weeks are extremely important. Getting...


SLOTKIN: I think the importance of, in particular, getting some military wins against the Russians before the freeze, before the winter, is particularly important. And the Ukrainians are mounting that plan, particularly in the south. You know, I didn't quite connect that the Russians right now in the south occupy the largest nuclear power plant in Europe, the dam that controls all the water to Crimea. They've been very smart about what they've tried to take. And the Ukrainians don't want to let winter set in without punching the Russians in the teeth a few times.

KELLY: You have served as a senior Pentagon official, as a CIA officer. You did three tours in Iraq, which I mention as background for this next question, which is, what is your assessment of the impact of the weapons that the U.S. and our allies have sent so far?

SLOTKIN: Yeah. Look, I think President Zelenskyy was the first one to thank us. They would not be where they are right now if it weren't for the weapons, the support, the material that the United States and other countries have sent. And there are certain systems that have made a huge difference. HIMARS, which are, you know, longer-range fire, that has - you could literally see the Russians back up outside of the range of that, you know, weapon system. And so we know and we can see in real time how they're having an effect.

Look, he wants longer-range fires. That's something I support. I think we got to give them what they need. But I think there's - this is a black-and-white issue. Our weapons have made a huge difference.

KELLY: I was in Aspen last week, where national security adviser Jake Sullivan was asked about how much more the U.S. should give because, as you say, Ukraine, of course, is asking for more and faster. He, you know, talked about how the U.S. will stand with Ukraine as long as it takes but also said, look, some stuff needs to stay off the table, like Ukraine asking for long-range missiles that can have a range of 300 kilometers or so. In your view, should something stay off the table?

SLOTKIN: Well, look, I think that we're not talking about, you know, nukes. We're not talking about certain categories of weapons, and nor do I think we should be talking about those. But I think that in tandem with the Ukrainians coming up with things we know that can be useful in an offensive, that also don't, you know, elevate the risk so high that it puts us into a new place - right? - a new potential conflict with Russia, bringing us into it. And I think that there's a middle ground there. And I think some of these longer-range munitions that would fit right on a HIMARS right now is a good middle ground. We have disagreements about that. But to me, there are a number of things that I would never provide, but the Ukrainians aren't asking for them.

KELLY: So it sounds like your view is if Ukraine can show this is making a difference, they know how to use it, they're trained up, they're using it responsibly, the U.S. should be giving...

SLOTKIN: Correct.

KELLY: ...What they're asking for.

SLOTKIN: Correct. And you - look, we've underestimated the Ukrainians. And they've proven that whatever they lack in experience and training, they've made up for in will. And I think we need to hear that, and we need to give them things that help them, again, score some wins before the winter.

KELLY: And just bring this home to the U.S. in the last minute we have. What are you hearing from your constituents about how long, how firmly they are prepared to stand with Ukraine when, as you mentioned, attention is turning to other things, domestic problems? We've got rising food prices and gas prices here in the U.S., and that is due in part to what's happening in Ukraine.

SLOTKIN: Yeah, and I was just doing radio in Michigan, and people were asking like, how does this sum up? You know, where do we go? I think people have to understand that that conflict is connected to our life here and the price of things like food and gas in your supermarket, at your gas station, particularly food. You want lower food prices? That grain has got to get out of Europe - or got to get out of Ukraine. We've got to get that out. And if not, not only prices will stay as high as they are, it's a compounding factor, but they will continue to increase. So every American has a stake in getting that grain out of the ports and making sure we help Ukraine push back on Russia.

KELLY: So your message is stay the course.

SLOTKIN: Indeed. At least push hard, keep the pedal to the metal through the winter.

KELLY: Michigan Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin, a Democrat, thanks so much for joining us today.

SLOTKIN: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Christopher Intagliata is an editor at All Things Considered, where he writes news and edits interviews with politicians, musicians, restaurant owners, scientists and many of the other voices heard on the air.