Joe Biden promised Volodymyr Zelensky that American military aid to Kyiv will continue “as long as it takes” to defeat Russia’s aggression amid a whirlwind visit by the Ukrainian President to Washington to shore up support from his country’s top ally.
Mr. Zelensky, making his first foreign trip Wednesday since Moscow’s February invasion, met with the U.S. President and national-security officials at the White House before giving a Wednesday evening address to legislators, two weeks ahead of a more isolationist Congress taking office.
In his speech at the Capitol, he reminded the U.S. how effective its help has been so far – and what an abject failure Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion has been. “Against all odds and doom and gloom scenarios, Ukraine did not fall. Ukraine is alive and kicking. We defeated Russia in the battle for the minds of the world.”
The trip comes at a crucial moment. After Ukraine recaptured swaths of territory this past summer and autumn, Russia began an aerial bombardment meant to knock out electricity and other infrastructure amid the onset of winter. Mr. Zelensky has repeatedly pleaded with the U.S. and other NATO countries for more help to protect against the onslaught.
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At a joint news conference with Mr. Zelensky earlier, Mr. Biden said Mr. Putin “has no intention of stopping this cruel war,” signalling that he expected the fighting to continue for a long time.
“You will never stand alone,” Mr. Biden told Mr. Zelensky. “The American people have been with you every step of the way. And we will stay with you, we will stay with you for as long as it takes.”
Mr. Biden, who has made military support for Ukraine to contain Mr. Putin’s expansionism his central foreign-policy priority, announced that the U.S. military would give Ukraine Patriot missiles as part of the latest US$1.85-billion package of defence aid.
Congress is also expected to approve a further US$45-billion – more than doubling the total amount of help sent to Ukraine over the past two years – as part of a budget bill later this week. But the newly elected Republican majority in the House of Representatives has expressed skepticism about continuing support.
In his speech, Mr. Zelensky warned that, if other democratic countries fail to help Ukraine now, they will soon be fighting authoritarians on their own shores.
“The battle is not only for the life, security and freedom of Ukrainians, or any other nation Russia attempts to conquer. This struggle will define in what world our children and grandchildren live,” said Mr. Zelensky, who wore the same olive-green, military-style outfit that has become his trademark during the war. “Your money is not charity. It’s an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way,” he said.
Mr. Zelensky has ruled out negotiating with Russia until Mr. Putin agrees to give back all the territory he has taken from Ukraine since 2014 and pay compensation for war damages. In addition to weapons, Mr. Zelensky said he and Mr. Biden discussed further sanctions on Russia and a conference to build support for Ukraine’s peace demands.
Congress gave the Ukrainian President a warm welcome, with Speaker Nancy Pelosi describing him as “brave, courageous” and praised his citizens “for what they are doing to protect democracy.” Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, reiterated his staunch support for continued military funding: “Continuing our support for Ukraine is morally right, but it is not only that. It is also a direct investment in cold, hard, American interests.”
Members of both parties gave Mr. Zelensky several sustained, cheering standing ovations.
How long this reception will last is an open question. Republican House leader Kevin McCarthy, likely to become Speaker next month, reiterated his previous position on Ukraine late Wednesday: “I never support a blank cheque,” he said. Far-right legislators Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz sat stone-faced during Mr. Zelensky’s speech.
Since the start of the war, Mr. Zelensky, a former comedian and gifted communicator, has deftly worked to build international support for his country, alternately thanking leaders for their help and making a moral case for them to do more.
He took a similar tack Wednesday, comparing Ukraine’s struggle with American battles against Nazi Germany and the British at Saratoga. “Brave American soldiers held their lines and fought back Hitler’s forces during the Christmas of 1944. Brave Ukrainian soldiers are doing the same to Putin’s forces this Christmas,” he said.
While U.S. “support is crucial,” he said Ukraine needs more. “We have artillery, yes,” he said. “Is it enough? Quite honestly, not really.”
The Patriots, for which he had long asked, are meant to take down Russian warplanes and ballistic missiles at higher altitudes than the Ukrainians’ current air defence systems.
Recently returned from Bakhmut, a Donbas region town just liberated by Ukrainian troops, Mr. Zelensky gave Mr. Biden a combat medal an artillery captain there had asked be passed on to the U.S. President. To Congress, Mr. Zelensky presented a Ukrainian flag signed by the city’s defenders, which Ms. Pelosi and Vice-President Kamala Harris unfurled.
The White House said the meeting with Mr. Zelensky, which coincided with the 300th day of the invasion, came together quickly. It was first discussed 10 days ago, an invitation was issued last week and Mr. Zelensky accepted Sunday. For security reasons, everything was kept secret until the night before.
Mr. Biden and Mr. Zelensky have met once before, in September, 2021, and spoken by phone dozens of times since. Mr. Zelensky’s last foreign trip was in February, a few days before the Russian invasion, when he met with Ms. Harris and other leaders in Germany.
Speaking to reporters Wednesday, Mr. Biden noted that Mr. Zelensky, who is Jewish, was celebrating the fourth night of Hanukkah, a festival that marks the triumph of light over darkness. Mr. Zelensky, for his part, delivered a more succinct holiday message.
“Merry Christmas,” he told Congress, “and Happy Victorious New Year.”