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Zelensky slated to meet Biden, appear in Congress on Wednesday

The trip will mark his first public international appearance since Russia invaded Ukraine

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hands an award to a soldier during a medal ceremony for Ukrainian servicemen Tuesday. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/AFP/Getty Images)
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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday plans to appear in Washington to meet with President Biden and visit Capitol Hill, according to people with knowledge of the plan — a trip that will mark Zelensky’s first public international appearance since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

During the visit, Biden will announce a new $1.85 billion security assistance package that will include a Patriot missile battery to help Ukraine defend against Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure, a senior administration official told reporters Tuesday. The missile system, the most advanced air defense weapon in the American arsenal, has been a long-held and top request of Kyiv, and the official said the United States will train Ukrainian forces on how to operate it.

Follow our live coverage of Zelensky's visit to Washington

Biden and Zelensky plan to hold bilateral meetings and a news conference at the White House before the Ukrainian leader heads to Capitol Hill to deliver a joint address to Congress, according to the official. Lawmakers are looking to pass a year-end spending package this week that includes about $45 billion in new Ukraine aid, an effort Zelensky is expected to thank Congress for, according to the official and congressional aides with knowledge of the plans.

“The visit will underscore the United States’ steadfast commitment to supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes, including through the provision of economic, humanitarian, and military assistance," White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a written statement.

Zelensky’s high-stakes trip comes at a precarious time in the war as Ukrainians are bracing for a long, brutal winter. Russian President Vladimir Putin has employed extraordinarily ruthless attacks in recent weeks, including on civilian infrastructure that have knocked out electrical grids and left many Ukrainians without power, water or heat.

Administration officials said Biden and Zelensky have wanted to meet in person for months but that the security situation in Ukraine did not allow for Zelensky to leave the country. It was only recently, U.S. officials said, that Zelensky and his aides considered making an international trip, and the details of the trip were closely held in Washington in recent days given concerns around Zelensky’s safety.

Biden has made holding together a Western coalition supporting Ukraine a central mission of his presidency. Although all of the countries in the coalition are grappling with the economic consequences of the war, they have shown few signs of withdrawing or softening their support even as heat prices rise during the winter.

“President Biden will have the opportunity to reinforce that this support is not just about what we have done before, but what we will do today and what we will continue to do for as long as it takes,” said the senior administration official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity under ground rules established by the White House.

Biden administration to send Patriot missile system to Ukraine

Without disclosing Zelensky’s visit, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent a letter to her colleagues on Tuesday, asking lawmakers to be “physically present” for a “very special focus on Democracy” on Wednesday night. The letter set off a scramble among lawmakers who had already left Washington.

Dozens of members of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus were also left in the dark about the plans, even though their group is always aware of discussions between the United States and Zelensky’s administration, according to several who, like others interviewed for this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to outline private deliberations.

House members and aides were shocked to hear that Zelensky might visit the Capitol on Wednesday, a day when the Senate is hoping to get out of town after passing a year-long government funding bill. Zelensky will appear before Congress at a time when some House Republicans have begun to express deep displeasure with the U.S. funding Ukraine’s ongoing war with Russia.

Zelensky’s trip comes during a busy stretch of year-end business for the Democratic-controlled Congress, which is seeking to pass a sweeping government funding bill that includes an additional $44.9 billion in emergency military and economic assistance for Ukraine.

Republicans will take control of the House early next year, which some lawmakers fear could complicate efforts to continue funding Ukraine’s defense. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) and others have suggested they will scrutinize Ukraine spending when they assume control of the House in January and have warned against sending “blank checks.” Still, many Republicans — particularly in the Senate, including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) — have voiced unwavering support for Ukraine aid.

Inside the GOP, some have privately voiced skepticism that McCarthy and other House Republicans would significantly curb spending and risk bolstering Russia, but the rhetoric has created anxiety for Ukraine and other allies. The administration said its intent in planning Wednesday’s visit was not about warning Republicans.

“This isn’t about sending a message to a particular political party,” the senior administration official said. “This is about sending a message to Putin and sending a message to the world that America will be there for Ukraine for as long as it takes.”

On Dec. 20, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made an unannounced visit to troops defending Bakhmut, one of the bloodiest battlefields in the country. (Video: Reuters)

Zelensky on Tuesday made an unexpected visit to troops defending Bakhmut, the site of some of the bloodiest fighting in the war. In remarks Tuesday, Zelensky said this week is “extremely important for Ukraine — in order to get through this winter and next year, in order to gain the necessary support and for the Ukrainian flag to finally prevail on all sections of our border.”

He added, “Our fighters gave me our flag today and asked to pass it on to those whose decisions are very important for Ukraine, for all our warriors. We will definitely do it. We will definitely endure. We will definitely get the necessary support for Ukraine!”

As Zelensky’s travel plans were kept extremely close, congressional aides worried that the information getting out could have endangered his chances of leaving Ukraine, people with knowledge of the situation said.

The White House formally invited Zelensky on Dec. 14, the senior administration official said, to visit this week. The White House told the Ukrainian leader that it wanted to host him for an “extended program” that would include a lengthy sit-down with Biden, a meeting with top national security and Cabinet officials, a news conference and an opportunity to visit Capitol Hill.

The Ukrainian accepted the White House’s invitation on Friday and the trip was confirmed on Sunday, the official said.

Zelensky’s visit will mark the 300th day since Russia invaded Ukraine. More than 10 months into the conflict, there remains no end in sight, but the war has caused global upheaval, including rising fertilizer prices and a food crisis that has hit the global south, high gas prices, inflation, supply chain shortages and anxiety about a difficult winter in Europe.

During the bilateral meeting, Biden will “have the opportunity to have an in-depth strategic discussion on the way ahead on the battlefield,” the senior administration official said.

Biden and Zelensky have spoken numerous times since Russia’s invasion began in February, at many points talking as frequently as every couple of weeks. While the two have had a friendly relationship and gone to great lengths to praise each other in public, the relationship has had moments of tension.

In the conflict’s first months, for instance, Zelensky often lambasted the United States and other Western countries for not doing enough, even after Congress and the White House approved multibillion-dollar aid and weapons packages.

While Biden understood as a fellow politician that Zelensky had to advocate forcefully for his people, he also told the Ukrainian leader privately that it would be hard for him to keep asking Congress for money if Zelensky appeared ungrateful and kept saying it was not enough, according to a former White House official.

In another call this summer, Zelensky told Biden that the United States needed to do more. Biden stopped the Ukrainian leader and reminded him that the effects of the war were not lost on Americans, who were paying higher gas prices amid record inflation, according to a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private call.

Still, the White House has voiced unwavering support for Ukraine. When asked how long the United States can be expected to pour billions into the war effort, Biden and his top aides frequently say: “As long as it takes.”

Biden has also made clear he will not force Zelensky to negotiate with Russia before he is ready. “Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine” has become a common refrain of the president.

This month, Biden said he would be willing to meet with Putin about ending the war in Ukraine but stressed that such a discussion is not imminent because the Russian leader has not shown a willingness to seek a peaceful resolution and has employed horrific tactics against Ukrainian civilians.

“I’m prepared to speak with Mr. Putin if there is an interest in him deciding he’s looking for a way to end the war,” Biden said. “If that’s the case, in consultation with my French and NATO friends, I’ll be happy to sit down with Mr. Putin to see what he has in mind. He hasn’t done that.”

On Capitol Hill, several members and aides saw the last-minute invite to Zelensky as Pelosi’s final major act as speaker. Throughout the course of the year, Pelosi has made several trips around the world to countries she has championed as fighters of democracy, including Ukraine and Taiwan.

Several members who were in town for other meetings were planning to leave Wednesday ahead of a cross-country snowstorm, or stay home and vote remotely to pass the yearly government funding bill. Given Zelensky’s planned visit, many have delayed their flights or decided it is worth the trip back to Washington to honor him in person.

Liz Goodwin, Karen DeYoung and Meryl Kornfield contributed to this report.