Why Ukraine’s Zelensky is making a risky trip to meet Biden

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is in the midst of a dramatic, risky wartime visit to Washington, where he met with President Biden on Wednesday at the White House, thanked the U.S. for its support of his country’s war with Russia and pleaded for more U.S. aid.

“All my appreciation from my heart, from the hearts of all Ukrainians,” Zelensky said, speaking in English and seated next to Biden in the Oval Office. “Thanks from our ordinary people to your ordinary people, Americans.”

Biden lamented the brutality of the Russian onslaught on Ukraine, which he said targets civilians and infrastructure and uses “winter as a weapon.”

“Ukrainian people continue to inspire the world … with their courage and how they chose resilience and resolve for their future,” Biden added.

In addition to a warm welcome from Biden, administration officials and enthused supporters of Ukraine, Zelensky 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.

Zelensky wore drab olive 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.

Zelensky’s visit to the U.S., his first known trip outside his nation since Russia invaded 300 days ago, was a closely guarded secret until the eve of his arrival. It is fraught with risk and danger and shrouded in extreme security measures.

Zelensky told Biden the trip was made possible by U.S. support that has allowed Ukrainian forces to “control the situation.”

Zelensky 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 Zelensky in the hotly contested frontline 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 Zelensky.

“Well, undeserved but much appreciated,” Biden said. He asked Zelensky to give the officer a U.S. challenge coin, a medallion given to honor military service.

After the White House meeting with Biden, Cabinet members and the U.S. national security team, the youthful leader — whose nightly video addresses have served as an important morale booster for his people — will hold a news conference aimed at reaching the American public.

“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,” Zelensky said on his official Telegram channel ahead of his arrival at the White House.

Later, he will meet House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and deliver a speech to a joint session of Congress on Capitol Hill.

At the start of his journey, Zelensky 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 local time, 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.

Zelensky has previously used 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. Zelensky 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, Zelensky’s call for steadfast American backing has taken on added 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 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. Zelensky’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 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.

Zelensky’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 Zelensky for this visit when the two spoke by phone on Dec. 11; a formal invitation followed three days later, according to an official. Zelensky accepted the invite on Friday. On Sunday, the White House began coordinating with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to arrange Zelensky’s appearance before Congress. Pelosi hinted at Zelensky’s visit in a letter to colleagues on Tuesday, urging members to appear in person “for a very special focus on Democracy.”

In announcing the joint session of Congress, scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Eastern time, Pelosi said Zelensky’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 Trump’s first impeachment trial. As a 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 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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