Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy was making his way to Washington for a summit with President Joe Biden and would address the US Congress in his first known trip outside the country since Russia’s invasion began in February.
On Wednesday, Zelenskyy said on his Twitter account that the visit was “to strengthen resilience and defense capabilities” of Ukraine and discuss cooperation between his country and the United States with Biden.
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The highly sensitive trip is taking place after 10 months of a brutal war that has seen tens of thousands killed and wounded on both sides of the conflict, along with devastation for Ukrainian civilians.
The Kremlin said that nothing good would come of the visit and that Russia saw no chance of peace talks with Kyiv.
“The supply of weapons continues and the range of supplied weapons is expanding. All of this, of course, leads to an aggravation of the conflict. This does not bode well for Ukraine,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said in a call with reporters about Western arms supplies to Ukraine.
US lawmakers are set to vote on a year-end spending package that includes about $45bn in emergency assistance to Ukraine as the Pentagon prepares to send Patriot surface-to-air missiles to the country to defend itself.
On my way to the US to strengthen resilience and defense capabilities of 🇺🇦. In particular, @POTUS and I will discuss cooperation between 🇺🇦 and 🇺🇸. I will also have a speech at the Congress and a number of bilateral meetings.
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) December 21, 2022
Zelenskyy headed abroad after making a daring and dangerous trip on Tuesday to what he called the hottest spot on the 1,300-km (800-mile) front line of the conflict, the city of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s contested Donetsk province. He praised Ukrainian troops for their “courage, resilience and strength” as artillery boomed in the background.
Going to the US after visiting Bakhmut was “extremely significant,” said Ukraine’s presidential adviser Mykhailo Podolyak.
“Firstly, both the visit itself and the level of planned meetings unequivocally testify to the high degree of trust between the countries. Secondly, this finally puts an end to the attempts by the Russian side … to prove an allegedly growing cooling in our bilateral relations,” he told the Reuters news agency.
Ukraine needs “… weapons, weapons and more weapons. It is important to personally explain why we need certain types of weapons. In particular, armoured vehicles, the latest missile defence systems and long-range missiles”, he added.
In a statement on Tuesday night, White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden was looking forward to the visit and that the address to Congress will demonstrate “the strong, bipartisan support for Ukraine”.
“The visit will underscore the United States’ steadfast commitment to supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes, including through the provision of economic, humanitarian and military assistance,” she said.
Zelenskyy was scheduled to meet with Biden at the White House in the afternoon and then join Biden for a news conference in the East Room. He was expected to address Congress in the evening.
In her invitation to Zelenskyy to address a joint meeting of Congress at the US Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said “the fight for Ukraine is the fight for democracy itself” and that lawmakers “look forward to hearing your inspiring message of unity, resilience and determination”.
US and Ukrainian officials have made clear they don’t envision an imminent resolution to the war and are preparing for fighting to continue for some time. Biden has repeated that while the US will arm and train Ukraine, American forces will not be directly engaged in the conflict.
Biden and Zelenskyy first discussed the idea of a visit to Washington during their most recent phone call, on December 11, and a formal invitation followed three days later, said a senior US administration official, briefing reporters on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the visit.
Zelenskyy accepted the invitation on Friday and it was confirmed on Sunday, when the White House began coordinating with Pelosi to arrange the congressional address.
The White House consulted with Zelenskyy on security for his departure from Ukraine and travel to Washington, including the risk of Russian action while Zelenskyy was briefly out of the country, the official added, declining to detail the measures taken to safeguard the Ukrainian leader.
The official said Washington expected Moscow to continue its attacks on Ukrainian forces and civilian infrastructure targets despite the trip.
The tranche of US funding pending before Congress would be the biggest American infusion of assistance yet to Ukraine – even more than Biden’s $37bn emergency request – and is meant to ensure that support flows to the war effort for months to come.
On Wednesday, Washington was also set to announce that it will send a package of $1.8bn in military aid to Ukraine that will for the first time include a Patriot missile battery and precision-guided bombs for its fighter jets, US officials said.
The aid signals an expansion by the US in the kinds of advanced weaponry it will send to Ukraine to bolster its air defences against what has been an increasing barrage of Russian missiles in recent weeks.
The package will include about $1bn in weapons from Pentagon stocks and $800m in funding through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, officials said.
The decision to send the Patriot battery comes despite threats from Russia’s foreign ministry that the delivery of the advanced surface-to-air missile system would be considered a provocative step and that the Patriot and any crews accompanying it would be a legitimate target for Moscow’s military.
It’s not clear exactly when the Patriot would arrive on the front lines in Ukraine, since US troops will have to train Ukrainian forces on how to use the high-tech system.
The training could take several weeks and is expected to be done in Germany. To date, all training of Ukraine’s forces by the US and its Western allies has taken place in European countries.