Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday hailed US support and received promises of more, including new missile defense systems, after he flew to Washington on his first foreign trip since Russia’s invasion.
Zelensky kept his trademark military fatigues rather than switching to a suit as President Joe Biden rolled out the red carpet, affectionately putting his hand over the wartime leader’s shoulder outside the White House.
“We’re going to continue to strengthen Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, particularly air defense,” Biden told Zelensky as they sat by the fireplace in the Oval Office.
President Vladimir Putin is “trying to use winter as a weapon, but the Ukrainian people continue to inspire the world,” Biden said.
“I mean that sincerely — not just inspire us but inspire the world with their courage and how they have chosen their resilience and resolve for their future,” Biden said.
Zelensky — whose media savvy and rugged demeanor have helped him rally the world to Ukraine’s cause — will later deliver an address to Congress, which is finalizing a new $45 billion package for Ukraine heading into the new year.
– ‘Big support’ –
At the White House, Zelensky thanked Biden for his “big support and leadership across Europe.”
“I think it’s very difficult to understand what does it mean when we say appreciate but you really have to feel it,” Zelensky said in English.
He flew to the United States after a risky visit to the frontline in Bakhmut, where both sides have endured heavy tolls in constant shooting and shelling over the past two months.
Zelensky presented Biden with an award that he said was handed to him by a “real hero” — a captain on the ground of a HIMARS rocket system that has been a game-changer on the field.
“He’s very brave and he said, give it to very brave president,” Zelensky said.
Lawmakers compared Zelensky’s trip to Winston Churchill’s Christmas-time appearance in the Capitol in 1941, days after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II.
“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,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a champion of Ukraine.
– New missile defense –
As Zelensky arrived, the United States announced another $1.85 billion from previously budgeted funds for Ukraine, including for the first time the advanced Patriot air defense system, which is capable of shooting down cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles.
Ukraine fears a rising onslaught of missiles and has faced a slew of attacks from drones, many bought by Russia from Iran, as Moscow pummels power plants and other civilian infrastructure just as the country shivers in the winter cold.
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that new weapons deliveries would lead to an “aggravation of the conflict” and do not “bode well for Ukraine”.
Speaking with senior military officials during a televised address, President Vladimir Putin contended that Moscow was not to blame for the invasion and agreed with an assessment that Russia needed a larger army.
“The combat capabilities of our armed forces are increasing constantly,” Putin said, adding that Russia will also “improve the combat readiness of our nuclear triad.”
“What is happening is, of course, a tragedy — our shared tragedy. But it is not the result of our policy. It is the result of the policy of third countries,” he added.
“We don’t have any limits on funding. The country and the government is giving everything that the army asks for, everything,” Putin said.
Zelensky’s visit was quietly planned, beginning with a telephone call between Biden and Zelensky on December 11, followed by a formal invitation a week ago and confirmation of the visit on Sunday, US officials said.
He arrived in an official US government plane with flight-tracking sites showing he flew from Rzeszow, Poland, a town near the Ukrainian border that has become a hub for Western support.
Ukraine enjoys wide support in the United States but there has been criticism from several far-right Republicans who either oppose the aid or have voice sympathy for Putin.
Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, said before midterm elections that the new Congress would not give a “blank check” to Ukraine, a comment seen as seeking to mollify the right-wing flank of his party.
But Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, said he looked forward to seeing Zelensky and said that defeating Russia was in the US interest.
“The Ukrainian people are courageous and innocent and they deserve our help,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.
“President Zelensky is an inspiring leader, but the most basic reasons for continuing to help Ukraine degrade and defeat the Russian invaders are cold, hard, practical, American interests.”