It was the 300th day of a brutal war, and the first day of a terrible winter.
It was also time to leave the country.
Making his first trip beyond Ukraine’s borders since Russia invaded, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy undertook a perilous, secret journey from the war’s front lines to Washington, D.C. He traveled first by train to Poland and then flying abroad under the cover of night to make an urgent in-person appeal Wednesday to the nation most able to continue helping his war-weary homeland.
Zelenskyy’s visit was deliberately timed as the war entered a new, dangerous phase.
The White House invited Zelenskyy to appear with President Joe Biden and then address a joint session of Congress. The trip was planned for less than two weeks before Republicans take control of the House, potentially endangering future assistance to Kyiv. But it was also important, senior officials said, to showcase solidarity to a wary Europe to keep pushing the continent to support Ukraine as Russia’s terrorizing attacks on civilians escalate and temperatures plummet.
“Russia is using winter as a weapon: freezing people, starving people, cutting them off from one another,” Biden said. “It’s the latest example of the outrageous atrocities the Russian forces are committing against innocent Ukrainian civilians.”
The Ukrainian military has surprised the world with its ability to repel Vladimir Putin’s invasion. Moscow has been dealt humiliating setbacks and the major fighting — now largely frozen in place — has been confined to the outer reaches of Ukraine. But a new wave of Russian attacks on Ukraine’s electrical grid have plunged much of the nation into darkness and left millions of war-weary residents without heat or light.
The perilous conditions prompted Zelenskyy to make the trip to Washington to thank Biden for his support but also make clear the fight was far from finished. He pushed for more weapons by outlining the suffering ordinary Ukrainians face and repeatedly dwelling on parents who have lost their children to Russian bombs. And he said when the current tranche runs out, he’ll advocate once again for more.
« You understand it only when the war is in your country, when somebody like these terrorists from Russia come to your houses,” Zelenskyy said through a translator at a joint news conference.
“For me, a ‘just peace’ is no compromises as to the sovereignty, freedom and territorial integrity of my country [and] the payback of all damages inflicted by Russia’s aggression,” Zelenskyy said. “You know how many parents lost their sons and daughters on the front lines? So what is just peace for them?”
Privately, the issue of a peace process has been a thorny one for U.S. officials. There is an acknowledgment that domestic support for the war can’t go on indefinitely absent tangible steps to try and end the conflict diplomatically. But there is also acknowledgment that Ukraine is faring far better than expected. The public line is any deal will be determined and led by the Ukrainians.
Still, for the past several weeks, U.S. senior officials have discussed with European and Ukrainian counterparts a 10-point proposal Zelenskyy had outlined as conditions for a peace deal. Among the discussions has been whether such a proposal is possible to broach this winter. There have also been conversations with Ukrainians about what a potential halt in hostilities would look like.
But no one has received any real indication that Russia is serious about the proposal, which among other things would require all Russian troops to leave Ukraine. During his trip to D.C., Zelenskky paid the mildest of lip service to it.
Zelenskky has emerged as an unlikely hero of democracy, evoking comparisons to Winston Churchill for defiantly standing in the war zone and rallying his people with his speeches and video messages.
He and Biden, who had met just once before ahead of the war, shared an easy chemistry Wednesday as they walked through a White House decked for the holidays. Zelenskyy dressed in his trademark military fatigues while Biden sported a tie in Ukraine’s blue-and-yellow colors.
Zelenskyy has, at times, frustrated the Biden administration with his constant requests for more weapons, including those that would allow Ukraine to strike deep within Russia. The United States has steadfastly refused to send such arms to Kyiv for fear that they could be used to dramatically widen the scope of the conflict.
Zelenskyy offered a candid assessment of what he would do after receiving a Patriot missile battery, admitting, “we would like to get more Patriots.” As the assembled crowd of officials and journalists laughed, he added: “We are in a war, I am really sorry.”
Later, in his address to Congress, he mused about the arsenal the United States has sent along. “Is it enough?” he said, speaking to some lawmakers skeptical of the aid who sat just feet in front of him. “Honestly, not really.”
Zelenskyy thanked lawmakers for “financial packages you have already provided us” but noted: « Your money is not charity. It is an investment in global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way. »
The Ukrainian president said Wednesday he had hoped to meet with Biden earlier but security concerns have made U.S. officials reluctant to send the president to Kyiv. And until recently, officials in both countries believed it was too risky to have Zelenskyy travel to Washington. The Ukrainian president also was reluctant to leave the country for both his own safety and in fear that Russia would take advantage of his absence by escalating attacks.
But U.S. officials zeroed in on a late-December visit ahead of the GOP takeover of the House and once Russia stepped up its attacks on civilian infrastructure. Biden first proposed the visit to Zelenskyy on Dec. 11 and the Kyiv officially agreed just four days ago.
White House aides had hoped to keep the trip secret until Zelenskyy had begun his dangerous journey from the front, officials said. There was frustration after news leaked late Tuesday that Zelenskyy planned to address Congress. But there was only a brief consideration of scuttling the trip before it was deemed still safe to proceed.
The Ukrainian president’s visit to Washington came as Congress was on the verge of passing another $45 billion in assistance to Kyiv in the year-end omnibus bill, which would bring the total amount of emergency aid authorized by the United States to more than $100 billion. There had been hopes the bill would clear before Zelenskyy’s address to Congress on Wednesday night. But passage now is expected in the coming days.
GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, favorite to be the next House Speaker when the new Congress is sworn in next month, has pledged that Ukraine would no longer receive a “blank check” from Washington and newly-empowered far right Republicans have suggested that U.S. aid should be slashed entirely. Biden administration officials have expressed confidence that the aid to Ukraine would continue in the new year and Zelenskyy, likewise, said he was confident the spigot would not be shut off. But privately, administration officials concede that it will likely slow.
The other major question facing leaders is how the war will end and when. On Wednesday, Biden declared that both presidents were eager for peace but reiterated his past assertion that the decision to open negotiations to end the war belonged to Zelenskyy alone. Their meeting comes amid rising anxiety in Europe about the length of a war on a continent teetering on the edge of the recession and facing a growing energy crisis.
Biden’s show of solidarity, officials said, was also meant to reassure Europe about the American commitment to the cause and the president said that he had no concerns about the Western allies staying the course.
“I’m not at all worried about holding the alliance together,” Biden said.
Despite suffering heavy losses, the Kremlin shows no signs of abandoning its effort to conquer Ukraine. Putin visited Belarus this week in what was perceived as a bid for reinforcements and continues to brandish the threat of unleashing his nation’s nuclear arsenal.
But Zelenskyy has said that negotiations would not begin unless Russian forces leave all of Ukraine, something that Moscow has declared it will not consider, seemingly ensuring that the war would continue for the foreseeable future.
“So what kind of message can I send him after he actually destroyed our life?” Zelenskyy said. “He should be interested in trying to save something of his culture and history of his country. So that’s his problem now.”
Erin Banco contributed to this report.