Making a dramatic, risky wartime visit to Washington on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy strategized privately with President Joe Biden at the White House, addressed a packed joint session of Congress and delivered an impassioned pitch for sustained U.S. military aid for his country.
“Your money is not charity,” Zelenskyy told the unusual meeting of Congress on Wednesday evening. “It is an investment in global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.”
Earlier Wednesday, Biden praised Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people for their courage and resilience in the face of Russia’s invasion and pledged to stand with Ukraine for “as long as it takes.”
In addition to the warm welcomes from Biden, administration officials and enthused members of Congress, Zelenskyy was greeted with the president’s announcement of $1.8 billion in new aid, including a sophisticated Patriot missile battery that Kyiv has long sought.
But despite the mutual praise and appreciation and evident camaraderie between the two presidents, U.S. and Ukrainian officials remained at odds on several issues.
In an afternoon news conference at the White House, Zelenskyy made clear he wants more weapons than the U.S. is ready to provide. The Biden administration has tried to send Ukraine armaments that are clearly defensive and cannot be seen — particularly by Russia — as offensive, which would risk widening the conflict into neighboring NATO countries.
But Zelenskyy, after thanking Biden for the Patriot battery he announced Wednesday, said he’d be asking for another one right away.
“We’ve given Ukraine what they needed, when they needed to defend themselves,” Biden responded.
Asked what he considered a “fair” way to end the war, Zelenskyy bristled slightly and appeared to be responding to pressure from some Western officials to negotiate with Moscow.
“A just peace? I don’t know what a just peace is,” Zelenskyy said. “Just peace is no compromises to the sovereignty, freedom and territorial integrity of my country.
“How many parents lost their sons and daughters on the front lines?” he continued. “What is a just peace for them?”
In his Washington appearances — his first outside Ukraine since Russia invaded his country 300 days ago — Zelenskyy wore olive drab fatigues, a glaring reminder of the war back home amid the opulence of the White House’s inner chambers. Outside he was met by a red carpet facing the South Lawn, a military honor guard and an embrace from Biden.
Zelenskyy’s visit to the U.S. was a closely guarded secret until the eve of his arrival. It is fraught with risk and danger and shrouded in extreme security measures.
Zelenskyy told Biden the trip was made possible by U.S. support that has allowed Ukrainian forces to “control the situation.”
“All my appreciation from my heart, from the hearts of all Ukrainians,” Zelenskyy said, speaking in English and seated next to Biden in the Oval Office. “Thanks from our ordinary people to your ordinary people, Americans.”
Zelenskyy presented Biden with a medal that had been awarded to a Ukrainian officer who captained a U.S.-supplied rocket battery. The officer, who met with Zelenskyy in the hotly contested front-line town of Bakhmut on Tuesday, told him to “give it to the very brave president.” The award is the cross for military merit, according to Zelenskyy.
“Well, undeserved but much appreciated,” Biden said. He asked Zelenskyy to give the officer a U.S. challenge coin, a medallion given to honor military service.
Zelenskyy’s joint news conference with Biden followed several hours of closed-door meetings with the president, Cabinet members including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III and the U.S. national security team.
“I am in Washington today to thank the American people, the President and the Congress for their much-needed support. And also to continue cooperation to bring our victory closer,” Zelenskyy said on his official Telegram channel ahead of his arrival at the White House.
At the start of his journey, Zelenskyy arrived in Poland by train, accompanied by U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink, before flying on a U.S. Air Force jet to a military base outside Washington. He arrived around noon, was greeted by American military officials and the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S., and was transported by motorcade to the heart of the nation’s capital, where a yellow-and-blue Ukrainian flag flew over Blair House, the traditional lodging for visiting heads of state.
Zelenskyy, whose nightly video messages have served as a major morale booster for his people, has also frequently relied on video communication to make impassioned pleas for help to national legislative bodies the world over, as well as the United Nations and gatherings of world leaders at major summits.
An in-person appearance in the capital of Ukraine’s most important ally carries extraordinary significance. Zelenskyy will be able to emphasize that Ukraine has defied predictions of a swift collapse in the face of Russian military might. He will also be able to draw more attention to his country’s need for continued support.
As some Republicans begin to question whether military and humanitarian assistance for Ukraine should continue at current levels, and as certain parts of the U.S. public begin to show signs of impatience with the war effort, Zelenskyy’s call for steadfast American backing has taken on added urgency.
On Wednesday morning, just hours before Zelenskyy’s arrival, Biden announced a new tranche of $1.8 billion in aid. That aid will include a Patriot missile battery, the surface-to-air guided missile system Kyiv has requested for months, according to a senior administration official. The Pentagon calls the Patriot system “one of the world’s most advanced air defense capabilities.”
U.S. forces will train Ukrainians on using the system in a third country, the official said, and “Ukrainian troops will take that training back to their country to operate this battery.” A senior Defense Department official said the training would begin “very soon” but could take “several months” to complete, raising questions about how effective the new weapon will be during the crucial winter weeks ahead.
Russian President Vladimir Putin has called supplying Ukraine with the Patriot system a major escalation of the war, and in a speech Wednesday again hinted at his nuclear power, saying his military would concentrate on developing “the main guarantee of Russia’s sovereignty.”
Biden administration officials have insisted the Patriot missiles — along with all other weaponry the U.S. and NATO are supplying Ukraine — will be used defensively to deflect Russian attacks, and not for offensive operations inside Russian territory. That latter action would risk widening the conflict, U.S. officials have warned.
In Washington, lawmakers are also preparing to vote on a $1.7 trillion end-of-year funding bill for 2023 that includes $45 billion of additional economic and security assistance for Ukraine. Some House Republicans have expressed reluctance to approve more assistance for Ukraine after they take control of the lower chamber next year, but a senior administration official told reporters the White House is “confident” of continued bipartisan support for Kyiv. Zelenskyy’s appearance on Capitol Hill would underscore that commitment, the official added.
“This isn’t about sending a message to a political party. This is about sending a message to Putin and sending a message to the world that America will be there for Ukraine for as long as it takes,” said the official, who briefed reporters on the condition of anonymity to discuss details of the trip.
In remarks on the Senate floor Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said that continued support for Ukraine was not only morally right but “a direct investment in cold, hard, American interests.”
Defeating Russia, McConnell said, would also “send a stark warning” to China.
Zelenskyy’s meeting with Biden was his second appearance at the White House. The two leaders first met in September 2021, when Biden reiterated his administration’s commitment to “Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression” and American support for Kyiv’s “Euro-Atlantic aspirations.”
Biden invited Zelenskyy for this visit when the two spoke by phone on Dec. 11; a formal invitation followed three days later, according to an official. Zelenskyy accepted the invite on Friday. On Sunday, the White House began coordinating with Pelosi’s office to arrange Zelenskyy’s appearance before Congress. Pelosi hinted at Zelenskyy’s visit in a letter to colleagues Tuesday, urging members to appear in person “for a very special focus on Democracy.”
In announcing the joint session of Congress, Pelosi said Zelenskyy’s appearance recalled Winston Churchill’s congressional visit on the day after Christmas in 1941 to win American support in World War II. Pelosi’s father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., was a member of the House at the time.
“Eighty-one years later this week, it is particularly poignant for me to be present when another heroic leader addresses the Congress in a time of war — and with Democracy itself on the line,” she wrote.
The Ukrainian president has become a household name in Washington, having played a key role in former President Donald Trump’s first impeachment trial. As a newly elected president, Zelenskyy received a call from Trump threatening to cut off military aid to Ukraine unless he dug up dirt on Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. Joe Biden, then a Democratic rival preparing to launch his presidential bid, had led an anti-corruption push in Ukraine as vice president.
Ukraine had already been at limited war with Russia, after Putin invaded and illegally annexed Crimea, Ukraine’s southern Black Sea peninsula, in 2014.
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