Zelensky to visit Washington in historic visit with Biden

Zelensky to visit Washington in historic visit with Biden

President Biden will host Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the White House Wednesday, marking an unprecedented visit aimed at underscoring American support for Ukraine nearly 10 months in its fight against Russia’s invasion. 

Biden will also announce an additional $2 billion in military aid that includes advanced air defenses to help Ukraine defend against Russian aerial onslaughts that are targeting its energy and electricity infrastructure.

Zelensky’s visit was earlier confirmed to The Hill by congressional aides but was acknowledged by the White House late Tuesday night, with a senior administration official briefing reporters. 

The unprecedented visit marks the first time Zelensky has left Ukraine since Russia invaded in February. At that time, the U.S. reportedly offered to ferry the Ukrainian president out of besieged Kyiv where he was under threat of assassination — to which Zelensky replied, “I need ammo, not a ride.”

The senior administration official said the White House consulted closely with Zelensky on the security parameters of him being able to depart Ukraine and come to the U.S. for a brief period and return. 

“Of course, it ultimately was his decision to make. He concluded that those security parameters were met. What he needed, we agreed with that, and so we are executing accordingly,” the official said.

Biden will host Zelensky for an “extended bilateral” meeting, where the two leaders will discuss “the way ahead on the battlefield” against Russia, the official said.

The visit comes as Zelensky and his top aides have warned that Russia is preparing to launch a massive ground invasion that could include a renewed push to conquer Kyiv. 

Alongside Zelensky, Biden will announce an additional $2 billion in assistance for Ukraine, that will include Patriot Missile Batteries, which can help target ballistic and cruise missiles, as well as unmanned aircraft. The systems can generally operate with a maximum range of 100 miles, but the U.S. has handicapped other military systems provided to Ukraine in what it said was an effort to avoid further provoking Russia to escalate against the U.S. 

Putting the batteries into use “will take some time,” the official said, noting that the U.S. will train Ukrainian forces how to operate them in a third country. 

“But Ukrainian troops will take that training back to their country to operate this battery and we will continue to prioritize other forms of air defense support as well.”

Biden and Zelensky will hold a joint press conference and Zelensky will address, later that evening, a joint session of Congress which will allow lawmakers to demonstrate “the strong bipartisan support for Ukraine,” the official said.

Congress on Tuesday proposed an emergency aid package related to Russia’s war in Ukraine at $45 billion and that exceeded the White House’s original proposal of $38 billion. 

While the majority of Democrats and Republicans have expressed ironclad support for helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia, Republicans are more critical of Biden and Democrats’ approach to Ukraine. 

Some Republicans are voicing criticism against the administration’s support for a draft bill labeling Russia as an “Aggressor State,” as a way to compromise on Ukrainian calls to designate Russia a State Sponsor of Terrorism, a legal designation that the administration says restricts their ability to communicate with the Kremlin. 

And Republicans are generally more hawkish on oversight of U.S. assistance to Ukraine. House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), likely to take the Speaker gavel in January, has promised no “blank check” for Ukraine, in responding to calls for more oversight. 

Still, Zelensky’s visit and his address to a joint session of Congress are meant to demonstrate the “broad, deep and bipartisan” support from the U.S., the official said.

“President Biden… will reinforce the fundamental message on this trip to President Zelensky, directly, to the Ukrainian people, the American people and the world publicly, that the United States will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes and that in doing so that support will remain broad, deep and bipartisan.”

Biden has said that the U.S. will not send troops to Ukraine. When asked if the Wednesday visit marks a change to the U.S. involvement in the war, the official said it does not.

The genesis for Zelensky’s visit to Washington came during a phone call with Biden on Dec. 11, and the White House formally invited the Ukrainian president to come on Dec. 14. 

Zelensky accepted the invitation on Friday, and the visit was confirmed on Sunday, the official said. At that point, the White House informed the office of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to coordinate the Ukrainian president’s visit to Congress. 

The official did not say if Zelensky is traveling with a delegation.

When pressed on why Zelensky is traveling to the U.S. now and if the Ukrainian president is safe to leave the country, the official said Biden and Zelensky agree that it would be important for him to have the opportunity to thank the American people and Democrats and Republicans in Congress for the continued support.

“President Zelensky has indicated he’s very keen—was very keen—to make his first visit to the United States to be able to send this message,” the official said.

In the meeting at the White House, Biden and Zelensky are expected to include “an in depth strategic discussion on the way ahead on the battlefield,” the official said. Additionally, they will discuss the capabilities and training that the U.S. and our allies are providing Ukraine, and sanctions and export controls that have been imposed on Russia.

The trip on Wednesday marks 300 days since the Russian invasion into Ukraine.

While Zelensky has made a point to address virtually many of the countries and civil society supporting Ukraine, his continued presence in the country served as a morale boon to inspire Ukraine’s armed forces and ordinary citizens and an affront to Russian efforts to decapitate the leadership.

On Tuesday, Zelensky made a surprise visit to frontline troops fighting in the besieged Ukrainian city of Bakhmut, in the country’s east.

Zelensky’s office said that the president “listened to the commander’s report on the operational situation, logistical support and proposals for further actions” and “while in the area of hostilities…  thanked the Ukrainian warriors for their courage, resilience and strength, which they demonstrate while repelling enemy attacks.”

The senior administration official pointed to Zelensky’s Bakhmut visit as a testament to the Ukrainian’s president’s own determination of his security concerns versus what he feels is the best way to aid Ukraine. 

“He made the same calculus when it comes to, coming to the United States. He feels this is something that is going to aid the fight for Ukraine,” the official said.

“And we are determined to ensure that it aids the fight in Ukraine by projecting a strong message of unity, and resolve from the White House, from Washington, from the free world, on behalf of all the nations supporting Ukraine. That’s what we intend to do tomorrow.”

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