By Patsy Widakuswara
U.S. President Joe Biden welcomed Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to the White House Wednesday, marking Zelenskyy’s first known visit outside Ukraine since Russia launched its invasion of the country in February.
“Ukrainian people continue to inspire the world,” Biden said. “Not just inspire us, but inspire the world, with their courage and how they chose their resilience and resolve for their future.”
The American people “have stood proudly” with Ukrainians, he said.
“Democrats and Republicans together with our allies in Europe and Japan and other places, to make sure you have the financial, humanitarian and security assistance that is needed,” Biden said, noting that it has been 300 days since Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his “brutal assault on Ukraine’s right to exist as a nation.”
Zelenskyy, who spoke in English, extended to Biden his appreciation for the bipartisan support “from my heart, the hearts of Ukrainians, all Ukrainians.”
“Thanks, from our just ordinary people, to your ordinary people, Americans,” he said.
Zelenskyy also gave Biden a Cross for Military Merit medal that belonged to a Ukrainian soldier, a captain of a HIMARS battery provided by the U.S. The soldier had asked Zelenskyy to give it to the “very brave president.” Accepting the medal, Biden said it was “undeserved, but much appreciated.”
Later, during a joint press conference, Zelenskyy thanked “the people of America. People who do so much for Ukraine. I am thankful for all of that.”
He also thanked Biden for the new package of aid, including a Patriot battery system, saying it “will strengthen our air defense significantly. This is a very important step to create secure airspace for Ukraine,” preventing Russia from attacking “our energy sector, our people and our infrastructure.”
In a briefing to reporters Tuesday evening, a senior administration official said Zelenskyy’s visit carries a symbolic importance, providing an opportunity to “underscore the United States’ enduring commitment to Ukraine.”
“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 spoke on condition of anonymity as is customary for such briefings.
“President Putin badly miscalculated the beginning of this conflict when he presumed that the Ukrainian people would yield and that NATO would be disunited. He was wrong on both those counts. He remains wrong about our staying power. And that’s what this visit will demonstrate.”
The trip comes as U.S. lawmakers are debating another $45 billion in emergency aid to Ukraine, which would bring the total American wartime assistance to more than $100 billion. Zelenskyy was set to speak before a joint meeting of Congress later Wednesday.
“Zelenskyy may want to make a strong public case for U.S. support at a time when some Republicans and some progressives in the House have expressed skepticism about aid to Ukraine,” said William Courtney, adjunct senior fellow at RAND.
A recent Chicago Council poll finds that 65% of Americans continue to support U.S. assistance to Ukraine. And 48% say the U.S. should support Ukraine “as long as it takes,” while 47% want Washington to urge Kyiv to settle for peace as soon as possible.
While Zelenskyy is not known to have left Ukraine since the invasion began in February, he has made visits outside of the capital, Kyiv, including going Tuesday to the eastern city of Bakhmut, where his forces have been engaged in heavy fighting. He made a stop in Poland on the way to Washington.
Patriot missile defense
As Zelenskyy touched down on U.S. soil, the U.S. Department of Defense announced $1.85 billion in additional security assistance for Ukraine, which includes a Patriot air defense battery and munitions, additional ammunition for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS), missiles, artillery and other munitions. It’s the 28th such drawdown of equipment Biden has authorized since August 2021.
“This $1 billion drawdown will provide Ukraine with expanded air defense and precision-strike capabilities, as well as additional munitions and critical equipment that Ukraine is using so effectively to defend itself on the battlefield,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement.
Blinken said the U.S. is also announcing an additional $850 million of security assistance, bringing the total to an unprecedented $21.9 billion since the beginning of the administration.
Zelenskyy has repeatedly urged the U.S. and others to provide air defense systems that could help Ukraine deal with missile and drone attacks by Russian forces that have hit cities across the country and battered its infrastructure.
The senior administration official said Ukrainian forces will be trained on how to use the Patriot system in a third country, adding that the process “will take some time.”
“Ukrainian soldiers are the fastest I’ve ever seen at learning new technology. They’ll do it somewhere in Germany, or Poland, I’m imagining,” said retired commanding general, United States Army Europe Ben Hodges in an interview with VOA Ukrainian.
The Patriot, designed to protect a limited area is “the best in the world for its purpose,” Hodges said, “to knock down cruise missiles, and advanced aircrafts” but is “not a silver bullet.”
No peace talks
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters Wednesday that new weapons deliveries to Ukraine would deepen the conflict, and that Russia sees no chance of peace talks with Ukraine.
A pessimistic message on peace prospects is also coming out of the White House. Moscow has shown no intention in engaging in serious negotiations and Biden will not push for Ukraine to negotiate an ending to the war Russia started, said the senior administration official.
The official said Biden will instead “work with Congress and with our allies to put Ukraine in the best possible position on the battlefield, so that when the time is right they are in the best possible position at the negotiating table.”
Iuliia Iarmolenko contributed to this report