Zelenskyy visits Washington to meet with Biden and address Congress amid plea for more aid


President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine made a surprise visit to his nation's most important partner in its fight against Russia. Zelenskyy arrived in Washington on Wednesday to meet with President Biden and address Congress. It comes as U.S. lawmakers are set to pass a major funding increase for Ukraine and the administration prepares to send more weapons.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine is in Washington this evening, a surprise visit to his nation's most important partner in its fight against Russia.

    He met this afternoon with President Biden and will address Congress later tonight. The visit comes as lawmakers consider a major funding increase for Ukraine, and as the Biden administration sends more weapons to aid the war effort.

    In a visit the world is watching, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy traveled outside the borders of his battered country for his first known trip abroad since Russia invaded in February.

    Joe Biden, President of the United States: Well, Mr. President, it's good to have you back.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    His decision to come to Washington on day 301 of the war reinforces the partnership between the U.S. and Ukraine that Zelenskyy sees as critical.

    On Twitter, he said he would meet with President Biden to — quote — "strengthen resilience and defense capabilities of Ukraine."

    He took that same message Tuesday to Ukrainian troops in the city of Bakhmut, the site of pitched and brutal fighting in the east.

  • Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukrainian President (through translator):

    It is a complicated situation. The enemy increases the number of its troops. We will pass on gratitude from our boys to the U.S. Congress and U.S. president for their support. But it is not enough.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Ukrainians reacted to news of Zelenskyy's visit, trusting their leader to secure what the country needs.

  • Hanna, Kramatorsk Resident (through translator):

    We hope for support, as the United States is one of our main partners. After his trip to Bakhmut, which is my home city, I hope Zelenskyy will be able to share his firsthand experience about what's going on there, how our cities are being ruined, how our people are being killed.

    I think no one in the U.S. can remain careless and that support will only grow.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Russia has hammered Ukraine with missiles and drone strikes in recent weeks, as Moscow shifted its strategy to inflict even more pain on Ukraine's people, repeatedly taking down the electrical grid, amid freezing winter cold.

    But more air defense is on its way. The U.S. announced today that it would provide an additional $1.8 billion in military aid to Ukraine, with, for the first time, a Patriot missile battery and precision-guided bombs for fighter jets.

    With those, the U.S. aims to help Ukraine bolster both its air defense and attack capabilities. Meanwhile, Russia sent a stark warning against further American military aid to Ukraine.

    Dmitry Peskov, Spokesman for Vladimir Putin (through translator): Weapons supplies continue. The assortment of supplied weapons is expanding. All this leads to an aggravation of the conflict and does not bode well for Ukraine.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And in a speech to top military leaders, Russia's President Vladimir Putin vowed to continue the war no matter what.

  • Vladimir Putin, Russian President (through translator):

    Of course, combat and military actions always bring tragedy and human losses. But, since it is inevitable, it is better that it happens today than tomorrow. I have no doubt that all the goals we set ourselves will be achieved.

  • Volodymyr Zelenskyy:

    All my appreciations from my heart, from the hearts of Ukrainians, all Ukrainians.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Back at the White House, Zelenskyy thanked the U.S. for support and presented President Biden with a medal won by a Ukrainian officer, given at the officer's request.

    Later, standing side by side with Zelenskyy, President Biden said the new aid package would send a powerful message to Putin.

  • President Joe Biden:

    He was wrong, wrong and wrong. He continues to be wrong. And the sooner he makes it — it's clear that he cannot possibly win this war, that's when the time we have to put the — this president in a position to be able to decide how he wants the war to end.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    They spoke about weapons, energy sanctions and support for peace talks. Zelenskyy urged us to stay engaged in the war and in its support of Ukraine.

  • Volodymyr Zelenskyy:

    We really fight for our common victory against this tyranny. That is real life. And we will win. And I really want win together. Thanks so much.

    Not want. Sorry. I'm sure.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    His last stop is his first in-person address to Congress, where he will ask lawmakers not to forget about Ukraine.

    And now, for some perspective from Kyiv, as a cold, dark winter continues with intermittent power and water, I'm joined by special correspondent Volodymyr Solohub.

    Volodymyr, hello again.

    I know you have been talking today to ordinary Ukrainians. What do they say about this trip their president is making?

  • Volodymyr Solohub:

    Judy, indeed, they see this as a very important symbolic and a bold move on the part of President Zelenskyy, something he's been famous for doing, because, just some 36 hours ago, he was in Bakhmut, which is in Eastern Ukraine, one of the hottest spots on the front line in this war between Ukraine and Russia.

    And looks like straight from Bakhmut, straight from the front lines, he went to Washington, D.C., to meet with President Biden in the White House. And he brought this special gift for President Biden from Bakhmut.

    So, a lot of Ukrainians, they admire and they are basically very proud of the Ukrainian president.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, as we reported, Volodymyr, this is the first time President Zelenskyy has left the country since Russia invaded.

    What are the concerns about security?

  • Volodymyr Solohub:

    Yes, Judy, there were some concerns that Russians, having learned that the president has left the country would try and stage some sort of — another attack on the capital or somewhere else in the country.

    We did have a few air raid sirens here in Kyiv today, but nothing major happened. But, of course, some people were concerned about President Zelenskyy's personal safety, because it's not like you can hop on the plane in Kyiv and fly to D.C. The airspace is closed over Ukraine. You have to drive or take a train across the land to western border with Poland.

    And only there you can take a plane and then fly to the United States. So, obviously, these logistics were also in play when designing and thinking about this historic and unprecedented trip for President Zelenskyy.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Yes, no doubt great care was taken regarding his travel in Ukraine and then across the Atlantic.

    Volodymyr Solohub, thank you very much. We appreciate it.

  • Volodymyr Solohub:

    Thank you.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And for more on President Zelenskyy's visit to Washington, we get two views from veterans of both Democratic and Republican administrations.

    Retired Lieutenant General Douglas Lute had a 35-year career in the Army and served on the National Security Council staff during the George W. Bush and Obama administrations. He also was U.S. ambassador to NATO during the Obama administration. And Stephen Sestanovich is a professor at Columbia University and senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was ambassador at large for the former Soviet Union during the Clinton administration. He also served on the National Security Council staff during the Reagan administration.

    And we welcome both of you back to the "NewsHour."

    Steve Sestanovich, to you first.

    What — how do you see the main purpose of this visit?

    Stephen Sestanovich, Council on Foreign Relations: Well, President Zelenskyy is exploiting his star power, which he has in abundance. He's the bigger star on this stage when he goes into the Oval Office.

    I thought The New York Times had a good way of describing it. They're saying it's a thank you, a victory lap, and a sales pitch all at once. Zelenskyy wants to say thank you, but he also wants to press the administration for more weapons. And he's got a long list.

    Even with the announcement of new weapons and other assistance today, the Ukrainians are worried about a new Russian offensive, and they want to be able to protect themselves.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Doug Lute, can you enlighten us on what's on that long list that the Ukrainians, that President Zelenskyy is talking about, presumably, with the administration?

    Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute (RET.), Former U.S. Ambassador to NATO: Well, Judy, I think there are two categories of military capabilities he's looking to fill, first, the longer-range, more capable air defense systems.

    And this is in part filled by this recent announcement that we're sending our best, highest capable such system, the Patriot, to Ukraine. So that's a good start on that capability gap.

    The other gap, though, I think, has to do with a more sophisticated, complicated offensive capability that the Ukrainians will need to refurbish for a spring offensive. And here, tanks, armored infantry, armored engineer capabilities for river crossing, obstacle breaching, and so forth will all be important.

    I was encouraged by recent reports just last week that the U.S. will be training Ukrainian units in unit packages in training areas in Germany, and, ideally, equipping them at the same time, and then returning these equipped, trained units to the battlefield in Ukraine.

    So those are the sorts of things that President Zelenskyy has on his list.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, Steve Sestanovich, is it your expectation that the Biden administration is going to go along with this, that we can expect them to announce a change in what they're prepared to do?

  • Stephen Sestanovich:

    They're not going to announce it change in what they're prepared to do, beyond what they have said today with Patriots.

    But in a backgrounder before the visit, a senior administration official told journalists that they're going to be leaning forward with support. They understand that the Ukrainians remain under tremendous pressure. They want this visit to, as the senior official said, inject momentum and support.

    But they also know that they have got to keep doing more. When you talk to Ukrainian officials, they mention all of the things that Doug has just — has just mentioned, especially tanks, but they also talk especially about air defense.

    They say that again and again. The Patriot decision is meant to meet that need in part, but it's only in relatively small numbers. They want much more significant numbers, and they want longer-range capabilities, so that, if they face a new offensive, a new attempt to take Kyiv, for example, which they're forecasting, they will be in a position to hit the Russians hard.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Doug Lute, what would that look like? If the administration were to decide to give them what they're asking for, what kind of weapon are we talking about?

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute:

    You're talking about longer-range land — mostly land-based attack systems with longer ranges that could go after the launch sites of the systems that Russia is using to attack Ukrainian civilian infrastructure.

    So, these would be launched sites of the Iranian-supplied drones. These would be launch sites of the Russian-made cruise missiles and ballistic missiles, many of which are in Ukraine, in occupied Ukraine, but deep enough that existing systems in the hands of Ukrainians can't reach them.

    Other launching sites would extend this project all the way into Russia itself. And, of course, that's even more sensitive.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Steve Sestanovich, we're talking about what more the Ukrainians want, but we also hear in corners of Congress and elsewhere about some uneasiness about how long this aid is expected to go on, whether the American people are behind it, whether every member of Congress is behind it.

    Is U.S. aid for Ukraine in real jeopardy in any way, in your view, down the road?

  • Stephen Sestanovich:

    Well, you mention another reason that Zelenskyy is here.

    The Ukrainians read the polls. They know that there are signs that Western and American public opinion is a little less enamored of all-out support for them. But they're also pretty confident that they can shape Western public opinion. In Kyiv in September, I heard President Zelenskyy talk about the way in which reaching out directly to Western publics, they can influence Western governments and keep the support strong.

    And that's part of what he's doing here. He's using his star power to try to shape public opinion in a way that will solidify the support that they need.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, finally, Doug Lute, of course, Vladimir Putin isn't — is a central player in all of this.

    Is there any thought of any weakening of his position or his resolve in what he's been trying to do in Ukraine?

  • Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute:

    Well, Putin's rhetoric remains absolute maximalist, they're going to win this, as much as it takes, as long as it takes, and so forth.

    But I think that the Zelenskyy visit stands in sharp contrast to a recent Putin visit to virtually his only ally to this fight of Belarus, which is not providing any military support to Russia. And, by contrast, you have President Zelenskyy in the White House with President Biden, with the U.S. leading a 40-nation coalition providing Ukraine military support and leading an economic coalition with sanctions against Russia that represents 60 percent of global GDP.

    So the contrast here between who's with Russia and who's with Zelenskyy could not be sharper.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Steve Sestanovich, would you add anything to that? I mean, this is — indeed, it looks like a sharp contrast.

    But Putin is not slowing — or is not softening his language or the attacks on Ukraine.

  • Stephen Sestanovich:

    You know, when Putin was in Belarus, he had a press conference with President Lukashenko, who said: We're the two most toxic political leaders on earth.

    And that's true. Doug is exactly right. They are aware of their isolation. They're talking about the difficulties, the complications that they face in this offensive. And while Putin continues to talk a good game, resolute rhetoric and all of that, you know, Russian public opinion polls also show people a little less un — less certain that the entire enterprise is going well.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Steve Sestanovich, Doug Lute, we thank you both.

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Zelenskyy visits Washington to meet with Biden and address Congress amid plea for more aid first appeared on the PBS NewsHour website.

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