In historic speech to U.S. Congress, Zelenskyy warns stakes of war go beyond Ukraine's borders
Ukrainian leader receives several ovations as he vows country will never surrender
Ukraine's Volodymyr Zelenskyy told cheering U.S. legislators during a defiant wartime visit to the nation's capital on Wednesday that "against all odds" Ukraine still stands, thanking Americans for helping to fund the war effort with money that is "not charity," but an "investment" in global security and democracy.
The whirlwind stop in Washington — his first known trip outside his country since Russia invaded Ukraine in February — was aimed at reinvigorating support for his country in the U.S. and around the world at a time when there is concern that allies are growing weary of the costly war and its disruption to global food and energy supplies.
Delivering an impassioned televised address to Congress aimed at sustaining support for his country's defence, Zelenskyy called the tens of billions of dollars in U.S. military and economic assistance over the past year vital to Ukraine's efforts to beat back Russia, and he appealed for even more in the future.
"Your money is not charity," he sought to reassure both those in the room and those watching at home. "It's an investment in the global security and democracy that we handled in the most responsible way."
The speech to Congress came after U.S. President Joe Biden welcomed Zelenskyy to the Oval Office, saying the U.S. and Ukraine would maintain their "united defence" as Russia wages a "brutal assault on Ukraine's right to exist as a nation," and pledged to help bring about a "just peace."
Zelenskyy told Biden he had wanted to visit earlier and his visit now showed the "situation is under control, because of your support."
In his remarks to lawmakers, Zelenskyy harkened back to U.S. victories in the Battle of the Bulge, a turning point against Nazi Germany in the Second World War, and the Revolutionary War Battle of Saratoga, an American victory that helped draw France's aid for U.S. independence. The Ukrainian leader predicted that next year would be a "turning point" in the conflict, "when Ukrainian courage and American resolve must guarantee the future of our common freedom — the freedom of people who stand for their values."
Zelenskyy received thunderous applause from members of Congress and presented lawmakers with a Ukrainian flag autographed by front-line troops in Bakhmut, in Ukraine's contested Donetsk province. The flag was held up behind him on the rostrum by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Vice-President Kamala Harris. Pelosi then presented him with an American flag that had flown over the Capitol for the day, and Zelenskyy pumped it up and down as he exited the chamber.
Declaring that Ukraine "will never surrender," Zelenskyy warned that the stakes of the conflict were greater than just the fate of his nation — that democracy worldwide is being tested.
"This battle cannot be ignored, hoping that the ocean or something else will provide protection," he said, speaking in English for what he had billed as a "speech to Americans."
Political divisions don't go unnoted
Zelenskky appeared well aware of political divisions in the U.S. over prolonged overseas spending, and he called on the House and Senate lawmakers to ensure American leadership remains "bicameral and bipartisan."
Zelenskyy, speaking in English, thanked Biden with "all my heart" and presented him with a medal that had been awarded to the Ukrainian captain of a HIMARS battery, a rocket system provided by the U.S.
"He's very brave, and he said, 'Give it to a very brave president,'" Zelenskyy said.
Biden called the gift "undeserved but much appreciated."
The highly sensitive trip is taking place after 10 months of a brutal war that has seen tens of thousands killed and wounded on both sides of the conflict, along with devastation for Ukrainian civilians.
Zelenskyy's visit was meant to reinvigorate support for his country in the U.S. and around the world, amid concerns that allies are growing weary of the costly war and its disruption to global food and energy supplies.
Americans need to hear directly from Zelenskyy: Biden
In a joint news conference with Biden, Zelenskyy was pressed on how Ukraine would try to bring an end to the conflict. He rejected Biden's framing of a "just peace," saying, "For me as a president, 'just peace' is no compromises." He said the war would end once Ukraine's sovereignty, freedom and territorial integrity were restored, as well as the "payback for all the damages inflicted by Russian aggression."
"There can't be any 'just peace' in the war that was imposed on us," he added.
Just before his arrival, the U.S. announced its largest single delivery of arms to Ukraine, including Patriot surface-to-air missiles, and Congress planned to vote on a spending package that includes about $45 billion US in emergency assistance to Ukraine.
Russia, Biden said, is "trying to use winter as a weapon, but Ukrainian people continue to inspire the world." Later, in a joint news conference, he said Russian President Vladimir Putin has "no intention of stopping this cruel war."
Biden said it is "important for the American people, and for the world, to hear directly from you, Mr. President, about Ukraine's fight, and the need to continue to stand together through 2023."
Travelled on U.S. Air Force jet
Biden and Zelenskyy first discussed the idea of a visit to Washington during their most recent phone call, on Dec. 11, and a formal invitation followed three days later, said a senior U.S. administration official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the visit.
Zelenskyy headed abroad after making a daring and dangerous trip on Tuesday to what he called the hottest spot on the 1,300-kilometre front line of the war — the battleground city of Bakhmut in Ukraine's contested Donetsk province. He praised Ukrainian troops for their "courage, resilience and strength" as artillery boomed in the background.
Poland's private broadcaster, TVN24, said Zelenskyy crossed into Poland early Wednesday on his way to Washington.
Officials, citing security concerns, were cagey about Zelenskyy's travel plans, but a U.S. official confirmed that the Ukrainian leader arrived on a U.S. Air Force jet that landed at Joint Base Andrews, just outside the capital, from the Polish city of Rzeszow.
Patriot missiles seen as escalation by Kremlin
The $1.85-billion U.S. military aid package includes $1 billion in weapons and equipment from Pentagon stocks, including the Patriot battery for the first time, and $850 million in funding through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI). Part of the USAI will be used to fund a satellite communications system, which likely will include the crucial SpaceX Starlink satellite network system owned by Elon Musk.
The aid signals an expansion by the U.S. in the kinds of advanced weaponry it will send to Ukraine to bolster its air defences against what has been an increasing barrage of Russian missiles in recent weeks.
Biden has repeated that while the U.S. will arm and train Ukraine, American forces will not be directly engaged in the conflict.
The Kremlin warned on Wednesday that increasing the supply of U.S. arms to Ukraine would aggravate the devastating war in Ukraine, where Putin vowed Russia would achieve its goals.
Speaking during a meeting with his top military brass, Putin said Russia's military should learn lessons and modernize based on its experiences in Ukraine and that special emphasis would go to developing his country's nuclear forces, which he described as "the main guarantee of Russia's sovereignty."
Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu at the same meeting said Russia's military must expand from its current size of one million personnel to 1.5 million service members, a number that should include 695,000 volunteer contract soldiers. He also said Russia would form new units in the country's west in view of plans by Finland and Sweden to join NATO.
Patriot training could take weeks
It's not clear exactly when the Patriot missiles would arrive on the front lines in Ukraine, since U.S. troops will have to train Ukrainian forces on how to use the high-tech system. The training could take several weeks and is expected to be done in Germany.
The visit comes at an important moment as the White House braces for greater resistance when Republicans, who have been more lukewarm on the subject of aid for Ukraine, take control of the House of Representatives in January. Top House Republican Kevin McCarthy has said his party's lawmakers will not write a "blank check" for Ukraine.
Russia's invasion, which began Feb. 24, has lost momentum. The illegally annexed provinces of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia remain fiercely contested.
With the fighting in the east at a stalemate, Moscow has used missiles and drones to attack Ukraine's power equipment, hoping to leave people without electricity as freezing weather sets in.