United States President Joe Biden has welcomed his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, to the White House, with Washington confirming it will transfer the Patriot air defence missile system to Ukraine as part of a $1.85bn military aid package.
Zelenskyy’s arrival in Washington, DC, on Wednesday marked the president’s first known trip outside of Ukraine since Russia invaded the country in February.
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In brief remarks at the Oval Office, Zelenskyy expressed gratitude to the US government and public. “Thank you first of all,” he told the US president. “It’s a great honour to be here.”
At a news conference later that day, Biden said the US will train Ukrainian forces to use the Patriot arsenal, which will “take time”. But he stressed that the system would be a “critical asset for Ukraine as it defends itself against Russian aggression”.
The Patriot missiles are part of an advanced surface-to-air defence system capable of shooting down cruise missiles, aircraft and short-range ballistic missiles. This is the first time the US is transferring Patriot weapons to Ukraine.
Biden added that he felt Russian President Vladimir Putin had no intention of “stopping this cruel war”. The US president said both he and Zelenskyy wanted the conflict to end under the vision of a “free, independent, prosperous and secure Ukraine”.
“The United States is committed to ensuring that the brave Ukrainian people can continue to defend their country against Russian aggression as long as it takes,” Biden said.
Zelenskyy hailed the US aid, saying the new air defence system would help thwart Russia from bombing Ukrainian infrastructure.
“The United States will help us to defend our values and independence and regardless of changes in the Congress, I believe that there will be bipartisan and bicameral support,” he said.
Zelenskyy added that he was “sure” the US and Ukraine would “win” together against “tyranny”. In his remarks, he described Russia as a “terrorist country”.
The US Republican Party, whose far-right wing has expressed scepticism over the country’s aid to Ukraine, is set to take control of the House of Representatives early next year as part of the incoming Congress. But bipartisan support for the government in Kyiv remains strong.
The US Department of State had announced the military assistance on Wednesday, hours before Zelenskyy arrived at the White House.
America welcomes you, Mr. President. pic.twitter.com/emqWCAYaTv
— President Biden (@POTUS) December 21, 2022
Zelenskyy was dressed in his usual military garb as he was greeted by the US president and first lady Jill Biden at the South Lawn of the White House.
Reporting from the White House, Al Jazeera’s Alan Fisher said Zelenskyy was making a clear point that he is “the leader of the armed forces of Ukraine, which is fighting for its survival”.
“He’s here to remind them that in many ways he is at the forefront of the fight for democracy in Eastern Europe,” Fischer said.
Fischer added that Zelenskyy also wanted to remind the US that he needed its support.
“What he doesn’t want to do is fight the Russians on the battlefield and have to fight with his biggest ally and his biggest supporter to give him the tools that they need, as far as he’s concerned, to win a war that he believes is still very much winnable,” Fischer said.
Zelenskyy said in a post on his official Instagram account, after he landed that he is in Washington, DC, that he wanted to “thank the American people, the President and the Congress for their much-needed support”. He added that the visit would “strengthen resilience and defence capabilities” of Ukraine.
The US Congress has overwhelmingly approved tens of billions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine since Russia launched February’s full-scale invasion. The Biden administration has been dispensing the aid through periodic assistance packages.
Wednesday’s aid announcement is one of the largest so far. It brings the country’s total assistance for Ukraine to $21.9bn since the start of the Biden administration, according to the US Department of State.
On top of the Patriot missile system, the Pentagon said the aid package also includes ammunition for high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS), precision-guided artillery rounds and high-speed anti-radiation missiles (HARMs).
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, its neighbour, began after Putin had demanded for months an end to NATO expansion into former Soviet republics. In announcing the “special military operation”, Putin said the goal was the “demilitarisation and denazification of Ukraine”.
But Moscow’s military campaign has been mired by setbacks. In recent months, Ukrainian forces backed by US weaponry recaptured large swathes of territory in a counteroffensive in the east of the country.
As President Zelenskyy meets with @POTUS, the DOD is committing $1.85B in additional security assistance for Ukraine. This package supports immediate and long-term security assistance needs, demonstrating our firm commitment to Ukrainian independence. https://t.co/UhdiiiWhoF
— Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III (@SecDef) December 21, 2022
Moscow, which has been bombing Ukrainian infrastructure for weeks, has said Western arms supplies to Kyiv would only exacerbate the conflict. The Kremlin recently warned the US against sending Patriot air defence batteries to Ukraine.
Zelenskyy is scheduled to address a joint meeting of Congress on Wednesday evening, where he is expected to call for more assistance for his country and sanctions against Russia.
“It’s always a high honour to welcome a foreign head of state to Congress, but it’s nearly unheard of to hear from a leader who is fighting for his life, fighting for his country’s survival and fighting to preserve the very idea of democracy,” Chuck Schumer, the Democratic leader in the Senate, said ahead of the Ukrainian president’s arrival.
“It shows the importance President Zelenskyy places on us continuing to give him robust help,” the senator added.
Also on Wednesday, the US Senate confirmed veteran diplomat Lynne Tracy as the country’s new ambassador to Russia.
Tracy, who previously served as ambassador to Armenia, “will be tasked with standing up to Putin”, Schumer said.