“I stand on the same podium with President Biden in the United States because I respect him as a person, as a president, as a person,” Zelensky said at a joint news conference on Wednesday. Biden responded: “The soul of this man is who he says he is. It’s clear who he is. He’s willing to give his life for his country.”
The visit meant a lot to both men.
It provided an opportunity for Zelensky, who briefly left the war-torn country, to tout his administration’s achievements in fending off Russian aggression. It gave Biden a chance to reiterate his “America is back” message and his defense of democracy to audiences at home and abroad, and play the role of the shrewd global leader he has always considered himself to be.
“The American people have been with you every step of the way, and we will be with you. As long as needed, we will be with you,” Biden said. “What you’re doing, what you’ve achieved – it’s not just important for Ukraine, it’s important for the whole world.”
Analysis: Zelensky finally gets his White House meeting
The meeting comes as both presidents face new challenges that may be more complex than the test they face in 2022.
The challenge facing Zelensky is clearly more of an existential one, as he faces a harsh winter of war made all the more precarious by Russia’s brutal attacks on civilian infrastructure and Ukraine’s power grid. Biden is preparing to let Republicans take over the House of Representatives, determined to damage him politically and investigate his son.
The power change in Congress could also affect Zelensky’s goals, as some Republicans have expressed interest in reining in U.S. spending on the Ukraine war. Intentional or not, Zelensky’s visit created a powerful moment that his supporters hoped would repel any doubts.
At each stop on Wednesday, Zelensky made a point of thanking the American public for their continued support for Ukraine. “Thank you for our ordinary people, thank you for your ordinary people, Americans,” Zelensky told Biden during a meeting in the Oval Office. “I really appreciate it.”
The visit to the White House was a symbolic victory for Zelensky, one that few expected to last 300 days ago when Russian President Vladimir Putin began sending thousands of troops and firing swarms of missiles into Ukrainian territory. Former comedian Zelensky has become an unexpected global icon as Ukrainian forces have fought back, in some cases driving Russian fighters from occupied territories. Time magazine named him its Person of the Year for 2022, something Biden mentioned during an Oval Office meeting.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) praised Zelensky in a letter inviting him to address Congress, and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) will He has been compared to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II.
“It is always a great 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 almost unheard of for a leader to fight for his life, for the survival of the country, for the preservation of democratic ideals.”
While Zelensky has spoken virtually with foreign leaders and governing bodies around the world—including a speech to Congress in March—his decision to come to Washington ahead of a trip to Europe underscores the “U.S. commitment to Ukraine.” The unparalleled importance of democracy,” said Max Bergman, European director of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It marks America coming back — that’s Biden’s term — but there’s something real in it,” Bergman said. “The U.S. has proven that it’s indispensable to European security.”
Zelensky, who arrived at the White House in the same outfit he wore when he visited Ukrainian troops, had black hair in stark contrast to Biden’s strands of white. Wearing a blue and yellow tie, Biden invited Zelensky into the Oval Office and the two walked along the White House colonnade together, a powerful image for Zelensky at home.
Both presidents have benefited greatly from emphasizing their mutual support. They make the most of it.
Zelensky presented Biden with a medal from a Ukrainian soldier. “He was very brave,” Zelensky said of the soldier. “He said, ‘Give it to a very brave president.’ I want to give [to] you. “
Biden accepted, saying it was “unworthy but commendable.”
As for Biden, he cited Zelensky’s Jewish background and noted that they met during Hanukkah, which celebrates the victory of a small nation over a powerful oppressor. “I’m being joked about when I say all politics is personal,” Biden said. “It’s all about looking people in the eye, and I mean it sincerely. The enemy sat down face to face.”
Beyond the symbolism, Zelensky’s visit also included concrete outcomes important to both leaders. Hours before Zelensky’s arrival, the White House announced that Biden had approved a new $1.85 billion security aid package that included the Patriot missile system. When the Ukrainian president arrived in Washington, lawmakers were trying to pass a spending package that would include $44.9 billion in emergency aid to Kyiv.
With a Republican takeover of the House likely to weaken Biden’s legislative agenda, he is expected to focus more on foreign policy, an area where the president wields broad powers. Since the midterm elections, Biden has visited Asia, paid a state visit to France, approved a prisoner swap with Russia and hosted a summit of African leaders. But Ukraine’s fate may be the most important part of Biden’s foreign policy legacy.
“The American people know that if we stand by in the face of this blatant attack on the core principles of freedom and democracy and sovereignty and territorial integrity, the world will surely face worse consequences,” Biden said Wednesday.
At the same time, the American politics behind the visit are significant, if unstated.
President Donald Trump was impeached in 2020 for withholding military aid and holding a White House meeting with Ukraine in an attempt to pressure Zelensky to open an investigation into Hunter Biden. Now that Trump is officially challenging his successor, Zelensky’s visit provides another opportunity for the sitting president to contrast his own approach to the troubled country.
Trump has frequently criticized America’s European allies and called NATO “obsolete,” while Biden has praised the transatlantic partnership and sought to portray the United States as the world’s indispensable leader. The war in Ukraine is a key test of Biden’s approach, and Zelensky used the trip to Washington to thank the US president.
“We’re really fighting to defeat this tyranny together,” Zelensky said. “We’re going to win, I really want to [to] win together. “
He paused before correcting himself.
“Not because.’ Sorry,” he said. “I am sure.”