Zelensky’s visit creates a remarkable moment for two presidents
“I stand here in the United States with President Biden on the same podium because I respect him as a person, as a president, as a human being,” Zelensky said Wednesday during a joint press conference. Biden retorts: “That person at heart is who he says he is. It’s clear who he is. He is ready to give his life for his country.”
The visit was important to both men.
It offered Zelensky, who briefly left a war-torn country, an opportunity to tout his government’s achievements in countering Russian aggression. It gave Biden a chance to reiterate his “America is back” message and defense of democracy to both domestic and international audiences, and play the role of shrewd global leader he has always claimed to be.
“The American people have been with you every step of the way, and we will stand with you. We will stay with you as long as it takes,” Biden said. “What you are doing, what you have achieved, is important not only for Ukraine, but also for the whole world.
The meeting came as both presidents face new challenges that may prove even more complex than the trials they face in 2022.
Zelensky, whose challenges are clearly more existential, faces a grim winter of war made even more treacherous by Russia’s brutal assault on civilian infrastructure and Ukraine’s electricity grid. Biden hopes to take over the House of Representatives from Republicans determined to damage him politically and investigate his son.
The change of power in Congress could also affect Zelensky’s goals, as some Republicans have expressed interest in limiting US spending on the war in Ukraine. Planned or not, Zelensky’s visit created a powerful moment that his supporters hope will dispel any doubts.
At each of his stops on Wednesday, Zelensky went out of his way to express his gratitude to the American public for its continued support for Ukraine. “Thank you from our ordinary people to your ordinary people, Americans,” Zelensky told Biden during a meeting in the Oval Office. “I really appreciate it.”
The White House visit was a symbolic victory for Zelensky, who few expected to last when Russian President Vladimir Putin began sending thousands of troops and a barrage of missiles into Ukrainian territory 300 days ago. As the Ukrainian army fought back, in some cases pushing Russian fighters out of occupied territory, Zelensky, a former comedian, unexpectedly became a global icon. Time magazine named him its 2022 Person of the Year, something Biden mentioned during their meeting in the Oval Office.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) welcomed Zelensky in a letter inviting him to address Congress, and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) compared him to Winston Churchill, the British minister -president during World War II.
“It’s 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 to hear from a leader who is fighting for his life, fighting for the survival of his country and fighting to preserve the very idea of democracy.”
While Zelensky has spoken virtually with foreign leaders and governing bodies around the world — including an address to Congress in March — his decision to come to Washington before visiting Europe underscored the “unparalleled importance of the United States to Ukrainian democracy,” said Max Bergman, director for Europe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“It signals that America is coming back — and that’s Biden’s term — but there’s something real about it,” Bergman said. “The United States has shown that it is indispensable for European security.
Zelensky arrived at the White House in the same outfit he wears when visiting Ukrainian troops, his full head of dark hair contrasting with Biden’s white locks. Biden, wearing a blue and yellow tie, invited Zelensky into the Oval Office and the two were seen walking together along the White House colonnade, a strong image of home for Zelensky.
Both presidents had much to gain from emphasizing their mutual support. And they made the most of it.
Zelensky presented Biden with a medal from a Ukrainian soldier. “He is very brave,” Zelensky said of the soldier. “And he said, ‘Give it to a very brave president.’ And I want to give that [to] you.”
Biden accepted it, saying it was “undeserved but appreciated.”
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 kidding when I say that all politics is personal,” Biden said. “It’s all about looking someone in the eye, and I really mean it. I don’t think there is any, any substitute for sitting face to face with friend or foe.
Apart from the symbolism, Zelensky’s visit includes concrete results important for both leaders. Hours before Zelensky arrived, the White House announced that Biden had approved a new $1.85 billion security aid package, including the Patriot missile system. And while the Ukrainian president landed in Washington, lawmakers were working to pass a spending package that included $44.9 billion in emergency aid for Kyiv.
With a Republican takeover of the House likely to limit Biden’s legislative agenda, he is expected to sharpen his focus on foreign policy, an area where presidents have broad powers. As midterm exams, Biden traveled to Asia, held a state visit to France, approved a prisoner swap with Russia and hosted a summit of African leaders. But the fate of Ukraine will likely be the most significant component of Biden’s foreign policy legacy.
“The American people know that if we stand aside in the face of such blatant attacks on freedom and democracy and the basic principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, the world will surely face worse consequences,” Biden said Wednesday.
At the same time, American policy supporting the visit was substantial, if undeclared.
President Donald Trump was impeached in 2020 for withholding military aid and a White House meeting from Ukraine in an attempt to pressure Zelensky to investigate Hunter Biden. Now that Trump is officially challenging his successor, Zelensky’s visit offered the incumbent another opportunity to contrast his own approach to the embattled country.
While Trump frequently criticizes America’s European allies and calls NATO “obsolete,” Biden praises the transatlantic partnership and tries to present the United States as an indispensable world leader. The war in Ukraine offers a key test of Biden’s approach, and Zelensky used his visit to Washington to thank the US president.
“We are really fighting for our common victory against this tyranny,” Zelensky said. “And we will win and I really want to [to] win together.”
He paused before correcting himself.
“I do not want.’ I’m sorry, he said. “I’m sure.”
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