Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, making a dramatic and risky wartime visit to Washington on Wednesday, privately strategized with President Biden at the White House, addressed a full joint session of Congress and delivered an impassioned pitch for sustained US military aid to his country.
“Your money is not charity,” Zelensky told the unusual meeting of Congress on Wednesday evening. “It is an investment in global security and democracy that we manage in the most responsible way.”
Earlier Wednesday, Biden praised Zelensky and the Ukrainian people for their courage and resistance in the face of Russia’s invasion and pledged to stand by Ukraine “as long as it takes.”
In addition to a warm welcome from Biden, administration officials and enthusiastic members of Congress, Zelensky was greeted with the president’s announcement of $1.8 billion in new aid, including a sophisticated Patriot missile battery that Kyiv has sought for a long time
But despite the mutual praise and appreciation and the obvious camaraderie between the two presidents, US and Ukrainian officials remained at odds on several issues.
In an afternoon press conference at the White House, Zelensky made it clear that he wants more weapons than the United States is willing to provide. The Biden administration has sought to send Ukraine weapons that are clearly defensive and cannot be seen, especially by Russia, as offensive, which would risk expanding the conflict to neighboring NATO countries.
But Zelensky, after thanking Biden for the Patriot battery he announced Wednesday, said he would order another right away.
“We gave Ukraine what it needed, when it needed to defend itself,” Biden responded.
Asked what he considered a “fair” way to end the war, Zelensky trailed off 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,” Zelensky said. “Peace is only a commitment to the sovereignty, freedom and territorial integrity of my country.
“How many parents lost their sons and daughters on the front line?” it continued. “What is a just peace to them?”
In his appearances in Washington, his first outside Ukraine since Russia invaded his country 300 days ago, Zelensky wore black olive clothing, a stark reminder of the war at home amid the opulence of inner chambers of the White House. Outside he was met with a red carpet overlooking the South Lawn, a military honor guard and a hug from Biden.
Zelensky’s visit to the US was a closely guarded secret until the eve of his arrival. It is full of risks and dangers and is surrounded by extreme security measures.
Zelensky told Biden that the trip was made possible by US support that has allowed Ukrainian forces to “control the situation”.
“All my thanks from my heart, from the hearts of all Ukrainians,” Zelensky said, speaking in English and sitting next to Biden in the Oval Office. “Thank you from our ordinary people to your ordinary people, Americans.”
Zelensky presented Biden with a medal that had been awarded to a Ukrainian officer who commanded a US-supplied rocket battery. The official, who met Zelensky on Tuesday in the hotly contested front-line town of Bakhmut, told him he was “handing it over to the very brave president.” The award is the Cross for Military Merit, according to Zelensky.
“Well, undeserved but much appreciated,” Biden said. He asked Zelensky to give the officer a US challenge coin, a medallion given to honor military service.
Zelensky’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 team of US national security.
“Today I am in Washington to thank the American people, the president and the Congress for their much-needed support. And also to continue cooperating to bring our victory closer,” Zelensky said on his official Telegram channel before the his arrival at the White House.
At the start of his trip, Zelensky arrived in Poland by train, accompanied by the US ambassador to Ukraine, Bridget Brink, before flying on a US Air Force plane to a military base outside Washington. He arrived around noon, was greeted by US military officials and Ukraine’s ambassador to the US, and was motorcaded into the heart of the nation’s capital, where a yellow and blue Ukrainian flag flew over Blair House, the traditional accommodation for visiting heads of state.
Zelensky, whose nightly video messages have served as a major morale booster for his people, has also frequently relied on video communication to appeal for help to national legislatures around the world, as well as at the United Nations and at meetings of world leaders at important summits.
An appearance in person in the capital of Ukraine’s most important ally is of extraordinary importance. Zelensky will be able to emphasize that Ukraine has defied predictions of a rapid collapse in the face of Russian military might. It will also be able to draw more attention to the need for continued support from your country.
As some Republicans begin to question whether military and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine should continue at current levels, and as certain segments of the American public begin to show signs of impatience with the war effort, Zelensky’s call for firm American support has gained more urgency.
On Wednesday morning, just hours before Zelensky’s arrival, Biden announced a new tranche of $1.8 billion in aid. That aid will include a battery of Patriot missiles, the surface-to-air guided missile system that Kyiv has been demanding for months, according to a senior administration official. The Pentagon calls the Patriot system “one of the most advanced air defense capabilities in the world.”
U.S. forces will train Ukrainians to use the system in a third country, the official said, and “Ukrainian troops will bring that training to their country to operate this battery.” A senior Defense Department official said training would begin “very soon” but could take “several months” to complete, raising questions about the new weapon’s effectiveness in the crucial weeks of ‘coming winter
Russian President Vladimir Putin has said supplying Ukraine with the Patriot system is a major escalation of the war, and in a speech on Wednesday he again hinted at his nuclear might, saying his military will focus on developing “the main guarantee of Russia’s sovereignty”.
Biden administration officials have insisted that the Patriot missiles, along with all the weaponry the US and NATO supply Ukraine, will be used defensively to deflect Russian attacks, not for offensive operations inside of Russian territory. This latest action would risk widening the conflict, US officials have warned.
In Washington, lawmakers are also preparing to vote on a $1.7 trillion year-end funding bill for 2023 that includes $45 billion in additional economic and security aid for Ukraine. Some House Republicans have expressed reluctance to approve more assistance to Ukraine after taking 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. Zelensky’s appearance on Capitol Hill would underscore that commitment, the official added.
“It is not about sending a message to a political party. It’s about sending a message to Putin and sending a message to the world that America will be there for Ukraine as long as it takes,” said the official, who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity to discuss details of the journey.
Speaking on the Senate floor Wednesday, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said 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 strong warning” to China.
Zelensky’s meeting with Biden was his second appearance at the White House. The two leaders met for the first time 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 the ” Euro-Atlantic aspirations” of Kyiv.
Biden invited Zelensky for this visit when the two spoke by phone in December. 11; a formal invitation followed three days later, according to an official. Zelensky accepted the invitation on Friday. On Sunday, the White House began coordinating with Pelosi’s office to arrange Zelensky’s appearance before Congress. Pelosi hinted at Zelensky’s visit in a letter to her colleagues on Tuesday, urging members to show up in person “for a very special focus on democracy.”
Announcing the joint session of Congress, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET, Pelosi said Zelensky’s appearance was reminiscent of Winston Churchill’s visit to Congress the day after Christmas in 1941 to win northern support -American 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 especially poignant for me to be present as another heroic leader addresses Congress in wartime, and with Democracy itself at stake,” he wrote.
The Ukrainian president has become a household name in Washington, having played a key role in former President Trump’s first impeachment trial. As the newly elected president, Zelensky 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 challenger preparing to launch his presidential bid, had led an anti-corruption push in Ukraine as vice president.
Ukraine had previously been at limited war with Russia, after Putin invaded and illegally annexed Crimea, the Black Sea peninsula south of Ukraine, in 2014.
Nolan McCaskill contributed reporting.