The capital city of the United States rolled out the welcome mat today for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who came to America to meet with President Joe Biden and deliver an incredible, inspiring speech to a joint session of Congress about Ukraine’s fight for freedom in the face of Vladimir Putin’s murderous war of aggression against a neighbor it had once pledged never to invade.
Making his first trip abroad since the escalation of the war Putin began many years ago in an attempt to gobble up Ukrainian territory and weaken the second largest country in Europe, Zelenskyy explained in a series of appearances that Ukraine is fighting against autocracy and oppression on behalf of the entire free world and needs all of the help that it can get from allies like the United States.
The Biden administration made sure that Zelenskyy got the most out of his visit. Zelenskyy’s itinerary included an Oval Office sit-down, a press conference in the East Room, and a primetime speech to a joint session of Congress.
The city government, meanwhile, made sure that Ukrainian and American flags adorned the capital’s broad boulevards. Mayor Muriel Bowser offered a greeting on behalf of the people who live and work in the nation’s capital.
For President Biden, it was an opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder and talk face to face. The president has said on more than one occasion that he values in-person diplomacy and personal relationships. Zelenskyy knows that, and has been seeking the very Oval Office meeting he got today for an extremely long time.
“This visit to Washington, your first trip outside Ukraine since February, comes as President Putin is escalating his attacks — his brutal attacks — targeting critical infrastructure to make life as hard as possible for not only innocent Ukrainians but children and young children, and everything from orphanages to schools. It’s just outrageous what he’s doing,” Biden noted in comments at the press conference.
“We had a very good negotiation and talks about our strategic steps — which we discussed with President Biden — and what we expect next year and for what we are preparing. This is very important for all Ukrainians, and I am hopeful,” said Zelenskyy, who added that despite the forthcoming change in U.S. House control, he feels good about the future of bipartisan, bicameral support for Ukraine.
In a poignant moment during the Oval Office meeting (which had what’s known in WHCA lingo as a pool spray), Zelenskyy presented Biden with a Ukrainian Cross of Military Merit that he explained was from the captain of a HIMARS battery.
“One guy is a real hero, he is a captain, who asked me to give you his award. He is the captain of the HIMARS battery. He is very brave. And he said, ‘pass this on to a very brave President.’ I give you the Cross of Military Merit. It’s from him. And the letter – I didn’t read it. It’s in Ukrainian, but there’s a translation here,” Zelenskyy said, to a very honored and delighted President Biden.
Later in the day, towards the end of his joint address to Congress, Zelenskyy unfurled a flag signed by Ukrainian soldiers and gave it to Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris, who held it up to thunderous applause from Congress. Pelosi then presented Zelenskyy with a triangular box containing a U.S. flag that had flown over the Capitol that day. The richly symbolic moment underscored the importance of the U.S.-Ukraine relationship to both countries.
Zelenskyy’s speech was a triumph. It was a well-written, well-delivered, well-received address that both conveyed the struggles of the Ukrainian people in their fight for freedom and a peaceful, prosperous future as well as the country’s gratitude for aid packages and weapons provided by the United States.
As important as American help so far has been, Ukraine needs more, Zelenskyy said. The Kremlin is a difficult foe: it has access to more money, equipment, and manpower than Ukraine does. But Zelenskyy emphasized that Ukraine has fought well this year and can be victorious with the continued help of the free world.
And he’s certainly right about that. Now would be a terrible time for the U.S. to hold back in investing in Ukraine’s success. And it is an investment — not charity, as Zelenskyy memorably said in one of the address’ most stirring lines.
Ukrainians aren’t just fighting for themselves, they’re fighting on behalf of all democracies against the greed and ambition of dictators like Vladimir Putin.
A Kremlin victory would be disastrous in every respect, and would increase the likelihood of a wider war that could involve NATO. All who want a peaceful world should be invested in the success of Ukraine’s defense and liberation, and should unreservedly stand with President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people.
In another of the address’ most important lines, Zelenskyy said: “Ukraine never asked American soldiers to fight on our land instead of us. I assure you that Ukrainian soldiers can perfectly operate American tanks and planes themselves.”
To date, the U.S. has provided drones, missiles, artillery, ammunition, and several different kinds of vehicles, but not tanks and planes, which Ukraine would really like to have for its defense. (Ukraine is at least finally getting its own Patriot missile system, but could use more of those too.) As the President of a nation fighting for its survival, Zelenskyy appropriately made the most of an opportunity to make the case for significantly increased military assistance from Congress.
Though he delivered many of the lines of his speech quickly, these particular lines were delivered much more slowly, and they landed about as well as they could have, with many members of Congress rising to their feet in support.
“The shipment of the Patriot is a decision that surprised even Ukrainian officials,” Politico reported today, detailing Ukraine’s request for more advanced weapons and the Biden administration’s response. “The Patriot system is a long-sought prize for Kyiv and the version headed to Ukraine is built to intercept ballistic missiles. That would be a major addition to Kyiv’s defenses against continued Russian attacks on the capital’s critical infrastructure.”
Ukraine would like to have longer-range missiles for the next stage of the war, but U.S. officials won’t agree to send them, at least not yet.
Their thinking, as Politico described it, is that “sending long-range missiles to Kyiv could risk provoking Putin using potentially even more lethal weapons inside Ukraine.” The Ukrainians have pointed out that Putin’s forces are already bombarding Ukraine’s energy infrastructure and attacking civilians. Zelenskyy’s trip to D.C. and successful acquisition of a Patriot are already guaranteed to enrage Putin. So why not arm the Ukrainians with longer range missiles?
While that debate continues, President Zelenskyy will be flying home, on a VIP transport provided by the United States, having made the most of an opportunity to urge support for Ukraine’s fight to U.S. leadership and the American people.