4 takeaways from the historic visit of Volodymyr Zelensky to Washington

Dec 21, 2022, 5:17 PM | Updated: 5:29 pm
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky holds a press conference with the heads of state of France, ...
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky holds a press conference with the heads of state of France, Germany and Romania, at Mariinsky Palace in Kyiv, on June 16, 2022. Zelensky flew to Washington, D.C. on Wednesday, Dec. 21, 2022, to meet with President Biden. (Photo by Ludovic MARIN / POOL / AFP) (Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
(Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)

Watch President Volodymyr Zelensky speak to the members of Congress.

(CNN) — Three-hundred days after his country was invaded by Russia, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky jetted to Washington, DC, for talks on what the next 300 days might bring.

Shrouded in secrecy until the last minute, the historic visit was heavy with symbolism, from Zelensky’s drab green sweatshirt to President Joe Biden’s blue-and-yellow striped tie.

But the trip was about far more than symbols. Biden wouldn’t invite Zelensky to Washington — and endure a risky trip outside Ukraine for the first time since the war began — if he did not believe something real could be accomplished meeting face-to-face instead of over the phone.

Emerging from their hourslong talks, both men made clear they see the war entering a new phase. As Russia sends more troops to the frontlines and wages a brutal air campaign against civilian targets, fears of a stalemate are growing.

Biden said the US would continue to stand with Ukraine “through 2023,” the clearest indication yet he doesn’t see the conflict ending anytime soon.

Biden and Zelensky try to figure out how the war ends

Gaining clarity on where Zelensky stands when it comes to ending the war was among the prerogatives in bringing him to the White House. The Ukrainian leader has voiced a desire for a “just peace” that would end the conflict — a point that US officials said would be at the center of their talks Wednesday.

Among the Western nations that have rallied in support behind Zelensky, there have been lingering concerns about what his long-term plan might be. On Wednesday, he seemed to make clear the road to ending the war would not involve making concessions to Russia.

“For me as a president, ‘just peace’ is no compromises,” he said, indicating he doesn’t see any road to peace that involves Ukraine giving up territory or sovereignty.

For his part, Biden said it was up to Zelensky to “decide how he wants to the war to end,” a long-held view that leaves plenty of questions unanswered.

US officials believe it could become increasingly difficult for Ukraine to retake territory from Russia as it reinforces its positions — leading to the prospect of a bloody stalemate.

A top Biden aide was firm ahead of the meeting that it was not meant for “pushing or prodding or poking Zelensky in any way” toward a particular way of ending the conflict.

Zelensky finally accepts the ride he was offered 

At the start of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Zelensky turned down an American offer to evacuate him from Kyiv.

“I need ammunition, not a ride,” Zelensky told the US.

Ten months later, he got both. When Zelensky touched down outside Washington in a US military plane Wednesday, his arrival capped a 10-day sprint by American and Ukrainian officials to arrange a risky wartime visit meant to rally support for Ukraine’s ongoing resistance to Russia’s invasion.

Just ahead of Zelensky’s arrival, the Biden administration announced it is sending nearly $2 billion in additional security assistance to Ukraine — including a sophisticated new Patriot air defense system that Zelensky has been requesting for months.

In weighing a visit, Zelensky suggested to advisers he did not want to travel to Washington had there not been a significant development in the bilateral relationship with the United States, according to a source familiar with the matter. Zelensky viewed the US decision to send a Patriot missile defense system to Ukraine as a major shift in the relationship between the two allies.

Yet standing alongside Biden, he was frank that he did not view the single Patriot system as enough.

“We would like to get more Patriots,” he said as Biden laughed. “I’m sorry but we are in war.”

A united front in a complicated relationship

Zelensky’s candid request for more Patriots — and Biden’s lighthearted response — amounted to a window into one of the world’s most complicated relationships.

On the surface, Biden and Zelensky have maintained a stalwart partnership. And Zelensky was effusive in his praise of Biden as he went from the Oval Office to the East Room to Capitol Hill.

Yet it doesn’t take much to see tensions just beneath the surface. Zelensky has consistently agitated for additional US support, despite the tens of billions of dollars in military assistance that Biden has directed to his country.

That hasn’t always sat well with Biden or his team. But as he has with a host of other foreign leaders, Biden appeared intent Wednesday on translating physical proximity into a better understanding of his counterpart.

“It is all about looking someone in the eye. I mean it sincerely. I don’t think there is any substitute for sitting down face to face with a friend or a foe and looking them in the eye,” he said.

A visit that symbolizes a ‘new phase’ in the war

Biden invited Zelensky to Washington this week because he believes the war in Ukraine is entering a “new phase,” officials said ahead of the visit. As winter sets in and Russia continues targeting civilian infrastructure, the moment seemed ripe for Zelensky to make a dramatic public appeal for continued international support.

Yet the new phase isn’t only on the battlefield. Around the world, leaders are confronting the bitter fallout of Russia’s invasion. Higher energy and food prices, in part generated by tough sanctions on Moscow, have caused trouble for politicians in Europe and the United States.

In Washington, Republicans poised to take control of Congress have made clear they won’t rubber stamp each of Biden’s requests for Ukraine assistance — though fears funding will dry up completely appear unfounded. Congress is on the verge of approving almost $50 billion in additional security and economic assistance.

Still, some Republicans refused to attend Zelensky’s address to Congress, a protest of what they claim are unrestrained dollars heading out of the US.

It was against that backdrop Biden insisted US support would continue for months.

He said it was “important for the American people, and for the world, to hear directly from you, Mr. President, about Ukraine’s fight, and the need to continue to stand together through 2023.”

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4 takeaways from the historic visit of Volodymyr Zelensky to Washington