Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrives in US to shore up support for Ukraine

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrived at the White House on Wednesday, the first stop in a brief, high-stakes visit to Washington that marks his first time leaving his country since Russia invaded more than 300 days ago.

President Joe Biden and his wife Jill greeted Zelenskyy shortly after Ukraine’s leader touched down in Washington on a US air force plane. Zelensky was clad in his customary military green cargo pants and a sweatshirt with Ukraine’s state emblem, which is the shape of a trident.

The two presidents put their arms around each other before heading inside the White House. Shortly before his arrival, the Biden administration announced $1.85bn in new lethal assistance for Ukraine, including the long-coveted advanced Patriot missile defence system.

In the Oval Office, Biden, wearing a yellow-and-blue striped tie, told Zelenskyy he was “delighted” the Ukrainian leader could make the trip as [Russia’s leader Vladimir] Putin is escalating assaults on civilians and is “trying to use winter as a weapon”. He pledged continued support for Ukraine, including the Patriot system.

“We will support Ukraine pursuing a just peace,” Biden said.

Zelenskyy described his visit as “a great honour” and said he had wanted to come earlier. He thanked Biden, Congress and “ordinary people” in the US for their support, and presented the US president with an award given to the captain of a unit in the Donbas that uses Himars — high mobility artillery rocket systems — which the soldier asked to be passed to Biden.

Later in the day, Zelenskyy is due to address a joint session of Congress before returning to Ukraine. He is expected to make his case to sustain US support, and for the West to step up weapons shipments.

Zelenskyy’s visit comes at a critical moment in Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Officials in Kyiv have warned Moscow is gearing up for a possible winter offensive as Ukraine fends off Russian attacks on two fronts: the east and south, where grinding combat between the militaries is under way; and in the skies, where Moscow has pummeled Ukraine’s critical energy infrastructure.

He travelled to the US via Poland on a US Air Force C-40B and landed at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.

The Biden administration wants the visit to showcase US support for Ukraine as the country heads into a tough winter.

Western weaponry will be critical for Ukraine. Kyiv has long sought the Patriot system, which analysts say will be a powerful addition to the country’s air defences, although it will not offer immediate respite from the mass Russian missile and drone attacks that are smashing Ukraine’s power infrastructure.

In addition to the Patriot system, the US will also for the first time transfer joint direct attack munitions, which convert unguided aerial munitions into “smart bombs”, allowing Ukrainian forces to more precisely target Russian military positions.

The US will train Ukrainian troops on the Patriot system, likely in Germany, for weeks before it arrives in Ukraine. It is expected to take some time before the system is operational on the battlefield.

The US has committed tens of billions of dollars in military, economic and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.

Congress is set to vote this week on a spending bill that includes $45bn in additional funds for Kyiv. The Biden administration has vowed to continue supporting Ukraine, with officials making preparations for a conflict that could stretch well into next year and beyond.

However, Republican leaders in the House of Representatives have suggested that passing additional aid for Kyiv will be more challenging next year when they take control of the lower chamber of Congress.

The Biden administration, Ukrainian officials and other Western allies have had quiet conversations about what a diplomatic solution could ultimately look like, though US officials stress the timing is not right.

“Biden is not going to pressure or push Zelenskyy to the negotiating table, but rather, he is going to work with Congress and with our allies to put Ukraine in the best possible position on the battlefield so that when the time is ripe, they are in the best possible position at the negotiating table,” a senior administration official said before Zelenskyy’s visit.

The Kremlin on Wednesday said it did not expect any positive developments or changes in Kyiv’s position on peace talks following Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington.

“The weapons supply to Ukraine continues, and their range is expanding. It leads to the conflict aggravation and does not bode Ukraine any good,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov said.

Additional reporting by Anastasia Stognei in Riga and Christopher Miller

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