Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy capped a whirlwind day in Washington with an impassioned plea to Congress and the American people to keep up support for Kyiv as it fights Russia’s invasion.
In a speech on Wednesday, Zelenskyy thanked lawmakers and the US public for broad and bipartisan support and said sustained commitments would be critical. The address to both chambers of Congress came just weeks before Republicans are set to take control of the House with a pledge to more closely scrutinise Washington’s support for Kyiv.
“Your support is crucial not just to stand in such fight, but to get to the turning point to win on the battlefield,” he said. “Your money is not charity, it’s an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.”
Speaking in English, Zelenskyy made a variety of historical references — including comparing Ukrainian soldiers in the Donbas to Americans who fought in the second world war’s Battle of the Bulge — framing Kyiv’s fight as a global one and an important moment in a struggle to preserve the world order, part of his attempt to shore up support from a critical ally in his first trip out of Ukraine since Russia invaded last February.
“This battle cannot be frozen or postponed,” he said. “It cannot be ignored.”
Zelenskyy received multiple standing ovations from the audience during the speech, which included members of the Senate and House.
Before his address to Congress, Zelenskyy struck a more defiant note during an appearance at the White House with president Joe Biden, questioning whether Kyiv could ever reach a “just peace” with Moscow and pressing his US counterpart to send additional weapons to sustain his war effort through the winter.
The US president touted $1.85bn in new assistance including a long-sought Patriot missile defence battery, and assured his Ukrainian counterpart that Washington was prepared to stand by Kyiv “as long as it takes”.
Zelenskyy was effusive in his thanks to the US president and the American people, and during a meeting in the Oval Office made a highly symbolic presentation to Biden of a military medal from a frontline soldier commanding a unit armed by US-supplied mobile artillery system. Later in Congress, Zelenskyy handed Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, a Ukrainian flag signed by soldiers on the front lines in Bakhmut.
After nearly four hours of meetings at the White House, there were some signs of tension between the two presidents even amid the warm affirmations.
Zelenskyy’s questioning of whether he could ever reach a “just peace” with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin came after Biden and US officials publicly argued Ukraine’s leader was seeking just that.
“For me as a president, ‘just peace’ is no compromises,” he said, standing next to Biden during a news conference in the White House’s East Room.
“There can’t be any ‘just peace’ in the war that was imposed on us,” he added, saying Kyiv would not agree to anything short of a return to full territorial integrity and “payback for all the damages inflicted by Russian aggression”.
Biden also sought to temper Zelenskyy’s demands for offensive armaments, arguing that an effort to provide weapon systems that are “fundamentally different” could risk rupturing the alliance of Western countries the US is pressing to maintain.
Still, the White House appearance of the two wartime allies in Washington — Zelenskyy clad in his customary military green cargo pants and sweatshirt, Biden wearing a striped tie of Ukraine’s national colours of blue and yellow — was a dramatic show of unity for two leaders who have staked their countries’ future on bloodying a common Russian foe.
Zelenskyy’s visit after more than 300 days of war comes at a critical moment in the Russian invasion. Officials in Kyiv have warned Moscow is gearing up for a possible winter offensive as Ukraine fends off Russian attacks on two fronts: on the ground, where grinding combat between the militaries is under way, and in the skies, where Moscow has pummeled Ukraine’s critical energy infrastructure.
Western weaponry will be critical for Ukraine’s ability to maintain its defences. Kyiv has long sought the Patriot system, which analysts say will be a powerful addition to the country’s air defences, although it will not offer immediate respite from the mass Russian missile and drone attacks that are smashing Ukraine’s power infrastructure.
A senior US defence official said the Patriots will complement other weaponry already provided by the US and its Nato allies.
“For air defence, there is no silver bullet,” the official said. “Patriot will complement a range of medium and short-range air defence capabilities that we’ve provided and the allies have provided in prior donation packages.”
Ukrainian forces will need several months of training before they will be able to employ the system successfully, the official said.
In addition to the Patriot system, the US also announced it will for the first time transfer joint direct attack munitions, which convert unguided aerial munitions into “smart bombs”, allowing Ukrainian forces to more precisely target Russian military positions.
Congress is set to vote this week on a spending bill that includes $45bn in additional funds for Kyiv. The US has already committed tens of billions of dollars in military, economic and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February.
The Kremlin on Wednesday said it did not expect any positive developments or changes in Kyiv’s position on peace talks following Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington.
“The weapons supply to Ukraine continues, and their range is expanding. It leads to the conflict aggravation and does not bode Ukraine any good,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.
Additional reporting by Aime Williams in Washington, Anastasia Stognei in Riga and Christopher Miller in Kyiv