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Zelensky’s visit yields remarkable moment for two presidents

Ukrainian leader briefly leaves his war-torn country to meet U.S. counterpart who has rallied nations on his behalf

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky with President Biden outside the White House on Wednesday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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Capping a year in which they each faced long odds and defied gloomy predictions, the two men stood side by side at the White House on Wednesday — President Biden in a blue suit, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in an olive-green military shirt and heavy boots.

The stark sartorial contrast was one of the few differences on display as Biden and Zelensky praised one another and presented a united front during the Ukrainian leader’s visit to Washington, his first appearance abroad since Russia’s invasion. The visit underscored how the relationship between the two men — a 44-year-old born in what was then the U.S.S.R. and an octogenarian born in Scranton, Pa. — has unexpectedly become one of the most vital partnerships in global affairs.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and President Biden shared their hopes for peace between Russia and Ukraine in a news conference on Dec. 21. (Video: The Washington Post)

“I am standing here in the United States with President Biden on the same podium because I respect him as a person, as a president, as a human being,” Zelensky said Wednesday during a joint news conference. Biden reciprocated, “This guy to his very soul is who he says he is. It’s clear who he is. He’s willing to give his life for his country.”

The visit was significant for both men.

It offered Zelensky, who briefly left a country racked by war, an opportunity to tout his government’s accomplishments in standing up to Russian aggression. It gave Biden a chance to reiterate his “America is back” message and his defense of democracy that has been directed at both domestic and international audiences, and to play the role of savvy global leader he has always ascribed to himself.

“The American people have been with you every step of the way, and we will stay with you. We will stay with you for as long as it takes,” Biden said. “What you’re doing, what you’ve achieved — it matters not just to Ukraine, but to the entire world.”

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The meeting came as both presidents confront fresh challenges that could prove even more complex than the trials they faced in 2022.

Zelensky, whose challenges are clearly more existential, faces a grim winter of war made more treacherous by a brutal Russian onslaught on civilian infrastructure and on the Ukrainian electrical grid. Biden is girding for a takeover of the House by Republicans determined to damage him politically and investigate his son.

The change of power in Congress could affect Zelensky’s goals as well, since some Republicans have expressed interest in reining in U.S. expenditures on the war in Ukraine. By design or not, Zelensky’s visit created a powerful moment that his supporters hope will beat back any doubts.

At each of his stops Wednesday, Zelensky went out of his way to express his thanks to the American public for its ongoing support of Ukraine. “Thanks from our ordinary people to your ordinary people, Americans,” Zelensky told Biden during a meeting in the Oval Office. “I really appreciate.”

The visit to the White House was a symbolic victory for Zelensky, who few expected would last when Russian President Vladimir Putin began sending thousands of troops and a barrage of missiles into Ukrainian territory 300 days ago. As Ukraine’s military has fought back, in some cases pushing Russian fighters out of occupied territory, Zelensky, a former comedian, has unexpectedly become a global icon. Time magazine selected him as the 2022 Person of the Year, something Biden mentioned during their Oval Office meeting.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) hailed Zelensky in a letter inviting him to address Congress, and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) compared him to Winston Churchill, the British prime minister during World War II.

“It’s always a high honor to welcome a foreign head of state to Congress,” Schumer said Wednesday, his blue suit and yellow tie matching the colors of the Ukrainian flag. “But it’s nearly unheard of to hear from a leader who is fighting for his life, fighting for his country’s survival and fighting to preserve the very idea of democracy.”

While Zelensky has spoken virtually to foreign leaders and governing bodies around the world — including an address to Congress in March — his decision to come to Washington before visiting Europe underscored “the unparalleled importance of the United States to Ukrainian democracy,” said Max Bergmann, director for Europe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It signals that America is back — and that’s been Biden’s term — but there’s something real to that,” Bergmann said. “The United States has demonstrated that it’s indispensable to European security.”

In a meeting with President Biden at the White House on Dec. 21, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed deep gratitude for American support. (Video: The Washington Post)

Zelensky arrived at the White House in the same gear he wears to visit Ukrainian troops, and his full head of dark hair contrasted with Biden’s wisps of white. Biden, wearing a blue-and-yellow tie, invited Zelensky into the Oval Office and the two were seen walking together along the White House colonnade, a powerful image at home for Zelensky.

Both presidents had something to gain from emphasizing their mutual support. And they made the most of it.

Zelensky presented Biden with a medal from a Ukrainian soldier. “He’s very brave,” Zelensky said of the soldier. “And he said, ‘Give it to a very brave president.’ And I want to give that [to] you.”

Biden accepted it, saying it was “undeserved but appreciated.”

As for Biden, he cited Zelensky’s Jewish background and noted that they were meeting during Hanukkah, which celebrates the victory of a small nation over a powerful oppressor. “I get kidded for saying all politics is personal,” Biden said. “It’s all about looking someone in the eye, and I really mean that sincerely. I don’t think there is any, any, any substitute for sitting down face to face with a friend or foe.”

Beyond the symbolism, Zelensky’s visit included concrete deliverables important to both leaders. Hours before Zelensky arrived, the White House announced that Biden had approved a new $1.85 billion security assistance package including a Patriot missile system. And as the Ukrainian president landed in Washington, lawmakers were working to pass a spending package including $44.9 billion in emergency assistance for Kyiv.

With the GOP House takeover likely to curtail Biden’s legislative agenda, he is expected to sharpen his focus on foreign policy, an area where presidents have broad authority. Since the midterms, Biden has traveled to Asia, held a state visit with France, approved a prisoner swap with Russia and hosted a summit for African leaders. But the fate of Ukraine will probably be the most significant component of Biden’s foreign policy legacy.

“The American people know that if we stand by in the face of such blatant attacks on liberty and democracy and the core principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, the world would surely face worse consequences,” Biden said Wednesday.

At the same time, the American politics undergirding the visit were significant if unstated.

President Donald Trump was impeached in 2020 for withholding military aid and a White House meeting from Ukraine in an attempt to pressure Zelensky into opening an investigation of Hunter Biden. Now that Trump is formally challenging his successor, Zelensky’s visit offered the incumbent another opportunity to contrast his own approach to the embattled country.

While Trump often chastised America’s European allies and called NATO “obsolete,” Biden has extolled the transatlantic partnership and attempted to present the United States as the world’s indispensable leader. The war in Ukraine offers a key test of Biden’s approach, and Zelensky used his Washington visit to thank the U.S. president.

“We really fight for our common victory against this tyranny,” Zelensky said. “And we will win, and I really want [to] win together.”

He paused before correcting himself.

“Not ‘want.’ Sorry,” he said. “I’m sure.”