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In Washington, Zelensky seeks to rally support for grueling war with Russia

The Ukrainian leader speaks to Biden and Congress on an extraordinary day marking his first international trip since the start of Russia’s invasion

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky addressed a joint meeting of Congress on Dec. 21 where he thanked the U.S. and asked for continuing military assistance. (Video: JM Rieger/The Washington Post, Photo: Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
12 min

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky made an impassioned and emotional plea to Congress on Wednesday for continued American support against Russia’s unrelenting assault, speaking personally and passionately about why Ukraine needed more aid and weapons to lawmakers whose ranks include some vocal skeptics of future reinforcements.

Zelensky’s address to a joint session of Congress came after he met with President Biden during an extraordinary day in Washington that marked the Ukrainian leader’s first international trip since Russia invaded Ukraine 300 days ago. The two projected a united front at the White House, and both men issued blistering rebukes of Russia as they sought to rally support for a long and grueling war.

But Zelensky, who has found his closest ally in Biden, faced a far greater challenge on Capitol Hill, where a growing number of House Republicans — who are poised to take control of the chamber in January — have expressed skepticism or outright opposition to continuing to send more aid to Ukraine. Zelensky’s visit also came as U.S. public support for sending expansive amounts of aid to Ukraine has softened significantly over the past several months amid rising economic anxieties.

Still, Zelensky — who donned his signature military green sweater and heavy boots — received several standing ovations from the hundreds of lawmakers gathered Wednesday, at times almost moving him to tears. But he told Congress he needs more aid and weapons to defeat Russia, and sought to convince lawmakers that they were not doing Ukraine a favor — that the United States and other countries had just as much of a stake in the war as Ukraine does.

“We have artillery, yes, thank you. … Is it enough? Honestly, not really,” Zelensky said. He continued: “Your money is not charity. It’s an investment in the global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way.”

He added: “This battle cannot be frozen or postponed. It cannot be ignored hoping that the ocean or something else will provide protection.” Putting the focus squarely on U.S. support, he continued: “So much depends on the world. So much in the world depends on you.”

After the speech, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said: “My position has never changed. I support Ukraine but I never supported a blank check. We want to make sure there’s accountability for everybody, the money that is spent.” His comments reflected a growing consensus among House Republicans who have demanded more oversight of how allotted funds are used.

On the whole, lawmakers in attendance were spirited by Zelensky’s appearance, giving him 18 standing ovations throughout his speech. Republicans and Democrats often cheered as they clapped, while Rep. Madeleine Dean (D-Pa.) unfurled the Ukrainian flag and held it up with the help of her Democratic colleagues to visibly show Zelensky the support that exists for his country.

But a small group of House Republicans critical of the ongoing funding to Ukraine, including Reps. Lauren Boebert of Colorado and Matt Gaetz of Florida, did not clap for Zelensky when he walked onto the House floor and rarely stood throughout his speech. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), the top critics of funding the war, did not attend.

“I attended out of respect, not agreement,” Gaetz told reporters after the speech.

Earlier in the day, Biden vowed to support Ukraine “as long as it takes” as the two leaders spoke about Russian President Vladimir Putin sharply — signaling that an end to the fighting is nowhere in sight. Zelensky called Putin and Russian forces “terrorists,” while Biden called the Russian leader “inhumane” and said Putin had made clear he had “no intention of stopping this cruel war.”

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)

Congress is poised to pass $45 billion in new spending for Ukraine this week in an end-of-year spending package. Yet several House Republicans criticized the aid package Wednesday or Zelensky’s visit directly.

Republican Chip Roy of Texas called the Ukrainian president’s address to Congress “political theater.”

“This is more of the theater that is being orchestrated by the current outgoing Democratic House leadership and Senate leadership,” he told reporters on Capitol Hill on Wednesday.

The visit, which was planned with great secrecy, came at a key inflection point, with Zelensky’s army bracing for a brutal winter of fighting and the future of U.S. support for his efforts headed into a period of greater uncertainty. Against that backdrop, both leaders set out to renew their pitch for support of Ukraine’s military efforts.

During a joint news conference after meeting privately at the White House, Biden argued that the stakes of the war extend well beyond Ukraine’s borders.

“We understand in our bones that Ukraine’s fight is part of something much bigger,” Biden said. “The American people know if we stand by with such blatant attacks on democracy and liberty … the world would surely face worse consequences.”

Zelensky similarly cast Ukraine’s fight as a broader one that was important for democracies around the world.

“I wish you to see your children alive and adults,” he said during the news conference with Biden, speaking in English, as he reminded people of the number of parents who had lost their sons and daughters during the war. He added, “The main thing what I can wish you, and of course, to be together with us generally because we really fight for our common victory against this tyranny.”

The Biden administration announced a $1.85 billion military assistance package for Ukraine on Wednesday, which includes the Patriot missile system, a sophisticated air-defense weapon that Zelensky’s government has long coveted. The money is separate from congressional packages.

Biden and Zelensky displayed warmth and comfort around each other Wednesday, embracing upon Zelensky’s arrival and presenting each other with gifts and gestures. Biden also at times spoke in emotional terms about the need to support Ukraine and the horrors Zelensky and his people have endured at the hands of Putin.

The unity stood in contrast to the more mixed opinions about Ukraine aid on Capitol Hill, where there are fears that House Republicans could pull back support when they take control in January and a new political dynamic takes shape. Some members aligned closely with former president Donald Trump, who is seeking the presidency again, have expressed skepticism or outright opposition to continuing to support an overseas war.

Yet many other Republicans have taken a different tack and have voiced strong support for continuing to back Ukraine with aid and weaponry. “The Ukrainian people are courageous and innocent and they deserve our help,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in a speech Wednesday on the Senate floor.

Maintaining domestic and global support for Ukraine as the war drags on far longer than initially anticipated has become a central mission of Biden’s presidency and is a microcosm of his broader foreign and domestic policy framework. He often talks of a global battle between democracy and autocracy and has highlighted similar themes as he has campaigned for fellow Democrats against Republicans at home and laid the groundwork for a reelection bid.

“It’s fully appropriate that Zelensky’s first trip outside his country would be to Washington,” said Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, a geopolitical consulting firm. “By far [Biden’s] most successful foreign policy has been leading the coalition in response to the Russian invasion.”

Biden struck an easy dynamic in his public appearances with Zelensky. The Ukrainian president arrived for a red-carpet welcome ceremony at the White House, where he was greeted by Biden and first lady Jill Biden. The president, wearing a blue and yellow tie — the colors of Ukraine’s flag — shook hands with Zelensky before all three posed for photos.

Ahead of the meeting, Zelensky said he wanted to express his “strong appreciation” for the United States’ support and for Biden’s leadership.

“Thanks from our ordinary people to your ordinary people, Americans,” Zelensky said.

Biden said Putin was “escalating his assault on civilians” and trying to “use winter as a weapon” before remarking on Zelensky’s status as Time magazine’s Person of the Year.

“You are man of the year,” Biden told Zelensky.

Zelensky also presented Biden with a Ukrainian military medal that earlier in the year was awarded to a Ukrainian officer for “outstanding feats on the battlefield,” according to the White House.

The officer met with Zelensky when he made an unexpected visit Tuesday to Bakhmut, the site of some of the bloodiest fighting in the war, and asked the Ukrainian leader to give the medal to Biden as a token of his gratitude. The officer wrote Biden a letter, the White House said, to express Ukraine’s appreciation for U.S. assistance that he said kept many Ukrainians alive.

Biden said the award was “undeserved but much appreciated.” He then gave Zelensky two command coins — one for the Ukrainian officer and one for Zelensky.

Biden and Zelensky have spoken for months about an in-person visit, according to a White House official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, but they could not make it work before this week because of security concerns Zelensky faced. The United States supported Zelensky’s travel to Washington, including by providing a U.S. military aircraft that Zelensky flew in overnight from Poland.

For Zelensky, the visit came as Ukrainians are bracing for a long winter. Putin has employed ruthless attacks in recent weeks in an effort to break the Ukrainian people, including on electrical grids and other civilian infrastructure that has left many without heat, power and water on bitterly cold days.

Russia “is targeting critical infrastructure to make sure life is as hard as possible,” Biden said. “As we head into the new year, it’s important for the American people and the world to hear directly from you, Mr. President, about Ukraine’s fight and the need to continue to stand together through 2023.”

Biden said Zelensky made clear that he was open to pursuing a “just peace” but that Putin had made no such gesture. Biden and his aides have made clear they will not force Ukraine into any negotiation.

Yet Ukrainians have continued to exceed expectations in their ability to take back key cities and territories. Putin initially thought Kyiv would fall in a matter of days after he invaded the country, but Russia had to quickly scale back its ambitions and focus on the country’s east after Ukrainian forces held them off.

Biden has worked to hold together the Western coalition despite the global upheaval the war has caused, and he has spent hours on the phone with leaders who have been reluctant to support Ukraine. During the news conference, he sought to play down the prospect of a fracturing alliance. European leaders have not indicated they will pull back support for Ukraine, but there has been anxiety about a difficult winter with rising heat prices aggravated by the war.

Putin “thought he could break NATO, he thought he could break the West, he thought he could be welcomed by the Ukrainian people who were Russian-speaking,” Biden said. “He was wrong, wrong and wrong.”

Biden has developed a close relationship with Zelensky that has at times been contentious, particularly as the Ukrainian leader has privately and publicly pressured the United States and European nations to do more. The United States, however, has far eclipsed all of its allies in the amount of aid and weapons it has sent.

The U.S. president had been looking at an end-of-year opportunity to host Zelensky, particularly as the White House and Congress were working to pass and approve large military and economic aid packages, the White House official said.

The White House wanted to send a “strong signal” that the United States is committed to continuing to support Zelensky, the official said, including by announcing the security package and Patriot missile battery.

The package Biden announced Wednesday will bring total U.S. military assistance for Ukraine to $21.9 billion since the beginning of the Biden administration — a figure that dwarfs the level of military assistance from all other European countries.

In Europe, the top providers of military assistance are Britain, which has committed to $3.29 billion in weapons and military financing; Germany, at $2.4 billion; and Poland, at $1.9 billion, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.

Europe’s offerings to Ukraine are more substantial when calculating overall government support, which includes humanitarian aid and economic assistance.

Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a co-chair of the Congressional Ukrainian Caucus and former FBI agent based in Kyiv, emerged from Zelensky’s speech encouraged. He said he sensed from some of his most conservative colleagues, “people you wouldn’t expect to hear from,” that they were moved by Zelensky’s request to continue aiding Ukraine.

As a moderate who strives for bipartisanship, Fitzpatrick said it’s his “number one priority” to make sure a House GOP majority continues to support Ukraine.

Leigh Ann Caldwell, Camila DeChalus, John Hudson and John Wagner contributed to this report.