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Deep secrecy, high risk: How Zelensky’s improbable D.C. visit came together

Plans were kept within a tiny group as the Ukrainian president prepared to leave his war-ravaged country for the whirlwind trip.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky exchanges flags with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Harris after addressing a Joint Meeting of Congress Wednesday. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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When a U.S. military aircraft landed on the tarmac in Rzeszow, Poland, on Tuesday, the plane crew thought they were picking up the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and a few high-level Ukrainian officials.

What they didn’t know, until they saw him exit a U.S. vehicle, was that one of those officials was Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who with American help had just completed a dangerous trip from Bakhmut — the site of some of the war’s bloodiest fighting, more than 400 miles from Kyiv — to the Polish border for a covertly planned visit to Washington.

The top-secret planning around Zelensky’s departure underscored the uniquely perilous nature of a visit by a wartime leader who faces daily risks to his life — a top Russian goal, after all, is to destroy the government he heads. But given the astronomical stakes, he and President Biden were eager to meet face to face, and Zelensky was willing to brave the risks of leaving his country for the first time since the Russian invasion began in February.

The trip came together in a matter of days, with only a tight group of White House and other senior administration officials aware of the plans. To avoid leaks and other security risks, U.S. officials said much of the communication with Zelensky’s team occurred in person, with U.S. Ambassador Bridget Brink meeting directly with Zelensky aides in Kyiv.

Just three days before Zelensky was set to land in Washington, White House officials alerted a small group of congressional leaders — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — so they could arrange for him to make an address to a joint meeting of Congress during his 9 1/2 hours in the United States.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky visited the United States on Dec. 21, marking his first international trip since the start of Russia’s invasion. (Video: The Washington Post)

In Washington, Zelensky seeks support for grueling war

This account is based on interviews with 10 White House and other administration officials, congressional aides, outside experts and others involved in the planning, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations and sensitive details.

Zelensky used his brief encounters with Biden and lawmakers on Wednesday to argue that Ukraine is capable of winning the war outright — something U.S. officials privately say is highly unlikely. And the trip, coming two weeks before Republicans wary of sending more aid to Ukraine take control of the House, was also an effort to shore up support among skeptical lawmakers and other Americans before a brutal winter of fighting.

“His very presence is a reminder of how dangerous it is to discount the power of the idea of Ukraine,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who attended Zelensky’s speech to Congress. “His country was supposed to fall within days. He was supposed to be dead if he stayed in Kyiv. So his words were effective, but just the image of Zelensky in the Congress a year after the invasion by itself sends this really powerful, unavoidable message.”

As to whether the Ukrainian president achieved his goals, Murphy said, “I do think the speech makes it more likely that Republicans that are on the fence won’t join the anti-Ukraine crowd. Right now, I think we have support in the House to keep Ukraine funding, and Zelensky’s visit helps with that.”

Zelensky had made clear to Biden for several months that he wanted to make the United States his first visit outside Ukraine, U.S. officials said, but the security situation in Ukraine made such a trip nearly impossible until this month.

The conversations became more serious by the end of November, and a Dec. 11 phone call between the two presidents was the final catalyst. Biden told Zelensky on the call that he had good news: He had directed the Pentagon to prioritize Ukraine’s air defense, and it now appeared likely that the U.S. would provide Kyiv with a Patriot missile battery, Zelensky’s top request for months to help defend against Russian attacks on civilian infrastructure.

Biden also informed Zelensky on the call that the White House had requested $37 billion in supplemental funding assistance for Ukraine and had received “positive signals” from lawmakers in response, a White House official familiar with the call said. Lawmakers are aiming to pass $45 billion in new Ukraine funding within days as part of a year-end spending package.

But it was the news of the Patriot missile system — the most advanced air defense weapon in the American arsenal — that seemed to motivate Zelensky to make the trip as quickly as possible, the White House official said, seeing it as a way to thank Biden, Congress and the American public, while bolstering U.S. support ahead of a long winter of fighting.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Dec. 21 said that new military assistance from the United States would strengthen global security. (Video: The Washington Post)

A remarkable moment for two presidents

From the beginning of the war, Zelensky has shown a shrewd ability to use communications — and his own image as a scrappy leader — to advance his country’s cause. Early on, he made virtual speeches to world capitals tailored to each country’s values; speaking virtually to the Congress in May, for example, he cited Mount Rushmore, the attack on Pearl Harbor and Martin Luther King Jr.'s “I have a dream” speech.

This time, he saw the value of visiting the U.S. before traveling to European countries that are closer to Ukraine geographically and would have made for a far less complicated trip. Once Zelensky made it back to Kyiv from the front lines, he took a train to the Polish border, where he was picked up by a vehicle arranged by U.S. officials for the 90-minute drive to Rzeszow.

“Zelensky understands he needs the United States and U.S. support is among the most decisive factors that will determine the outcome of the war,” said Andrea Kendall-Taylor, senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “If you’re going to go anywhere, you’d better go to the United States.”

White House officials were not initially sure exactly when Zelensky would visit, but they felt the eventual timing sent a powerful signal.

“We saw Zelensky arriving on the 300th day of this invasion, the shortest day of the year, the longest day of winter. That was an incredible signal that as we’re going into winter, we’re going in united,” a White House official said.

On Dec. 14, Wednesday of last week, the White House sent a formal invitation to Zelensky. Two days later, he accepted. On Sunday, shortly after Argentina defeated France in the World Cup final, senior U.S. officials got word that the trip had been officially confirmed, and Zelensky was coming to Washington in three days.

Hours before Zelensky left Ukraine, Punchbowl News reported that the Ukrainian leader was planning to travel to Washington to address Congress. Senior U.S. officials had hoped to keep Zelensky’s travel secret until he was safely out of Ukraine, and they quickly alerted his traveling delegation. He said they never considered canceling the trip.

Eleven hours after the U.S. military aircraft took off from Poland, Zelensky touched down at Joint Base Andrews, where a red carpet and a delegation of U.S. officials awaited him.

Zelensky and his aides were then whisked to Blair House, the president’s guest accommodation, across from the White House. The Ukrainian flag flew outside the building as staff prepared a spread of chicken, fish and holiday treats, including chocolate and double chocolate chip cookies. Zelensky had the opportunity to shower and relax before meeting with Biden, and the entire Ukrainian team was tested for covid, standing procedure for meeting with the president.

“It would have been a nightmare,” one U.S. official said about the prospect of Zelensky testing positive for the virus.

On Capitol Hill, most lawmakers were caught by surprise when news broke that Zelensky would address a joint meeting of Congress. Some had already left Washington for the holidays and scrambled to get back in time for the speech. Pelosi and her aides kept the information a secret, and top officials in the House and the Senate were unaware of the plans.

Pelosi had done her part in October to lay the groundwork for a possible Zelensky visit when she met with Ruslan Stefanchuk, the speaker of the Ukrainian parliament, in Zagreb, Croatia, said an aide to Pelosi, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal planning. Initially, Pelosi thought Zelensky might travel to Washington in October or November, and she remained in close contact with Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, as the trip was finalized.

In the end, Zelensky’s appearance before cheering lawmakers — in which he gave Pelosi a Ukrainian flag signed by soldiers and she reciprocated with a U.S. flag flown over the Capitol — was a big moment for the speaker just days before she stepped down as Democrats’ leader.

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)

Zelensky’s meetings on Wednesday were not just about symbolism and expressions of solidarity. During his closed-door discussions with lawmakers, Zelensky expressed support for a measure allowing the U.S. to transfer the proceeds of seized Russian property to Ukraine and a resolution recognizing a Russian genocide in Ukraine, according to congressional aides familiar with the matter.

Members of Congress credited the push with helping advance the asset legislation, which passed the Senate on Thursday as a part of a $1.7 trillion spending bill.

“They very personally lobbied for it, which helped,” said Rep. Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.), a longtime proponent of the bill, which could result in hundreds of millions of dollars in seized oligarch assets going to reconstruction in Ukraine.

Meanwhile, the House and Senate are still considering the other measure, which would condemn Russia’s “acts of genocide” and support tribunals to hold Russian officials accountable for the actions.

During his few hours in Washington, Zelensky targeted much of his message at conservatives who are asking why the U.S. is spending so much money on a country remote from its shores. He promised that U.S. aid was being spent responsibly and told lawmakers that far from being “charity,” the money was an investment not only in Ukraine’s future but their own. He repeatedly suggested that any victory by Ukraine was a triumph for America and its values.

In perhaps the most moving moment for Biden, Zelensky presented him with a Ukrainian medal that earlier in the year had been awarded to a Ukrainian officer for “outstanding feats on the battlefield.” Biden, in turn, gave Zelensky two “command coins,” presidential medallions for exceptional service, one for him and another to take back to the soldier.

The clandestine planning appeared to pay off for both Zelensky and Biden. The trip gave Biden a powerful opportunity to sustain the momentum for a Ukrainian cause that has helped define his presidency. And it gave Zelensky a high-profile chance to show his compatriots that he, and they, had the support of the world’s most powerful country.

Upon landing in Eastern Europe on Thursday, Zelensky said he was leaving Washington “with good results — with what will really help.”

John Hudson contributed to this report.