Volodymyr Zelensky and Joe Biden met in Washington on the night of Wednesday. night, Dec. 21. This is the first time that the Ukrainian President has left his homeland since the start of Russia’s illegal invasion in February.
What was on the day’s agenda?
The red carpet was rolled out for Zelensky, with planning for the visit cloaked in secrecy due to security concerns. Upon touching down in Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, he was welcomed by Rufus Gifford, chief of protocol for the U.S., and the Ukrainian Ambassador to the U.S., Oksana Markarova.
While he was being whisked away to the White House, Zelenskyy shared photographs taken at the base on Instagram, writing:
"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.
"I will hold a series of negotiations to strengthen the resilience and defense capabilities of Ukraine. In particular, we will discuss bilateral cooperation between Ukraine and the United States of America with U.S. President Joseph Biden."
"Next year, we must return the Ukrainian flag and freedom to our entire land, to all our people," he added.
Both the American and Ukrainian flags were seen flying above the White House as Zelensky appeared from an SUV and was greeted by President Biden and first lady Jill Biden on the South Lawn.
Half an hour later, Biden and Zelensky sat down for their short 2:30pm meeting, which was followed by a joint press conference and Zelensky delivering a speech to Congress.
What was said at the sit down?
The two leaders began their bilateral meeting in the Oval Office with Mr. Biden saying he was "honored" to be visited by Zelensky.
The U.S. President said that it was hard to believe 300 days have passed since Russia first launched its invasion in February, adding that, "the Ukrainian people continue to inspire the world."
"I mean that sincerely," he continued. "Not just inspire us but inspire the world with their courage and how they have the resilience and resolve for their future."
"We're going to continue to strengthen Ukraine's ability to defend itself, particularly air defense," Mr. Biden promised, going on to call Zelensky the "man of the year in the U.S.", in reference to the Ukrainian President’s recent appearance on the front page of Time magazine.
Zelensky said he’d hoped to visit America sooner, but that "the situation was too difficult," before thanking Mr. Biden's leadership and expressing his gratitude to Congress for approving funding packages.
He then presented Biden with a Ukrainian soldier’s combat award, saying the soldier wanted Mr. Biden to have it – to which Biden said the gifting to him was "undeserved, but much appreciated."
In turn, he said that he and his late veteran son, Beau Biden, used to give each other challenge coins, and said he would give one to Zelensky to be passed on to the soldier.
At the joint press conference that followed, Biden began by saying it was "particularly meaningful" to meet Zelensky in person.
"Ukraine has won the battle of Kyiv, won the battle of Kharkiv, won the battle of Kherson... Ukraine has defied Russia's expectations at every single turn", he told reporters.
Biden said that Russia is using winter "as a weapon,” and that "we should be clear about what Russia is doing. It's purposefully attacking its critical infrastructure destroying its system to provide heat and light for Ukraine people during the coldest, darkest months.
"Russia is using people as a weapon, freezing people, starving people," he added. "It's the latest example of the atrocities Russian forces are committing against Ukrainian people.
Saying that Russian President Vladimir Putin has "no intention in stopping this cruel war", Biden promised that America’s support for Ukraine will last "as long as it takes", and confirmed the U.S. would be sending the Patriot Air Defense System – but stressed that it was intended to be "defensive not escalatory".
From his podium beside Biden, Zelensky thanked the people of America whom he said "do so much for Ukraine", before describing the Patriot system as a "very important step" that will "significantly strengthen our country's air defenses".
He added that Ukraine has a "clear understanding" of how its defense will be strengthened in coming months, but said he could not provide full details.
Zelensky also said that, regardless of imminent changes in the U.S. Congress, he is confident Ukraine will continue to receive bipartisan support.
Similar messages, including from House of Representatives Leader Nancy Pelosi, were shared throughout the day - and for good reason.
What’s up with the Republicans?
A large number of notable Republicans, some of whom have long promoted pro-Russia conspiracy theories on social media (e.g. Donald Trump Jr, and congresswomen Marjorie Taylor Greene and Lauren Boebert), have been vocal in their criticism of America’s supply of aid to Ukraine.
With the Republicans soon set to become the majority party in Congress, there are growing concerns that it will become harder for aid packages to Ukraine to be voted through.
"I hope that Donald Trump's friendship with Putin is not motivating House Republicans to turn a blind eye to Ukraine's suffering and desperate need for help," Chuck Schumer, majority Leader of the U.S. Senate told reporters shortly before Zelensky’s arrival, after urging Republicans to attend the Ukrainian President’s address to Congress.
"The so-called friendship between Putin and Trump was a sour relationship that was deeply damaging to our country and to the international order," he added.
What did Zelensky say in his speech to Congress?
In his address, which lasted just over 20 minutes, Volodymyr Zelensky compared the war in his nation to America’s fight for independence.
"To ensure Bakhmut is not just a stronghold that holds back the Russian army but for the Russian army to completely pull out, more cannons and shells are needed," he told a packed Congress house. "Just like the Battle of Saratoga, the fight for Bakhmut will change the trajectory of our war for independence and freedom."
Zelensky then went on to say that Russia’s general tactic "is primitive."
"They burn down and destroy everything they see. They sent thugs to the front lines. They sent convicts to the war. They threw everything against us, similar to the other tyranny, which is in the Battle of the Bulge."
"Just like the brave American soldiers which 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 added.
Zelensky’s speech finished with a second, long standing ovation from members of both parties, and shouts of "Slava Ukrayini."
What’s included in the new military aid package?
Shortly before his arrival, the U.S. State Department unveiled a $1.85 billion military aid package for Ukraine.
The new package will include a Patriot missile battery, which, a day before Zelensky’s visit, a senior Biden administration official described as being "a critical asset to defend the Ukrainian people against Russia's barbaric attacks on Ukraine's critical infrastructure."
The official added that the U.S. "will train Ukrainian forces on how to operate the Patriot missile battery in a third country."
The aid package also includes military vehicles and hundreds of thousands of artillery shells and mortars.
The U.S. Congress has already allocated more than $65 billion in aid to Ukraine since February, with the new package set to bring U.S. assistance to over $100 billion.
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