Why President Volodymyr Zelensky’s surprise US visit is so significant
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to the White House on Wednesday will symbolically strengthen America’s role as democracy’s arsenal in Ukraine’s bitter war for survival and will deliver a startling public rebuke to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
That his first trip outside of Ukraine since February’s Russian invasion will be to the United States will also highlight President Joe Biden’s historic role in reviving the Western alliance that held the Soviet Union in check and now Moscow’s new expansionism rolled into one effective proxy war between nuclear superpowers.
Zelensky’s arrival will create poignant echoes of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill’s arrival in Washington 81 years ago on Thursday, days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. This Christmas visit cemented the alliance that would win World War II and build the post-war democratic world.
Zelenskyy compared his nation’s resistance to Russia to Britain’s lone resistance to the Nazis in the days before the US entered World War II during a video address to the British Parliament earlier this year, and his arrival in the US capital will draw the parallels earlier tighten meetings of Churchill and President Franklin Roosevelt.
His visit takes place under exceptional security measures. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi didn’t even confirm early reports that she would welcome Zelensky to the US Capitol in an unexpected coda to her speech, saying Tuesday night, “We don’t know yet. We just don’t know.”
Above all, a White House reception for Zelenskyy, who sources say traveled to the US Tuesday night, will be an unmistakable sign of US and Western support for Ukraine’s fight against Putin, who says the country has no right to exist. The war exemplifies what Biden has called a global struggle between democracy and totalitarianism, which he has placed at the heart of his foreign policy.
Arizona Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego, who visited Ukraine earlier this month, said on CNN’s AC360 that Zelensky is coming to Washington with a specific mission. “He’s trying to make a direct correlation between our support and Ukraine’s survival and support and future victory,” said Gallego, a member of the Armed Services Committee.
Biden will announce an additional $1.8 billion in security assistance to Ukraine during the visit, with the coveted Patriot missile systems as part of that package, a US official told CNN’s Phil Mattingly. Washington also plans to send precision bomb kits to Ukraine to convert less sophisticated munitions into “smart bombs” that could help it attack Russian defenses, sources told CNN’s Pentagon team. Zelenskyy’s visit also comes as Congress prepares to sign off on another $45 billion in aid to Ukraine and NATO allies, deepening the commitment that has helped Kyiv’s forces impose an unexpectedly bloody price on Putin’s forces.
The Patriots decision, which would fulfill a long-standing Ukrainian request, reflects a US process of adjusting its aid to the changing strategy of the Russian attack. The system would help Kyiv better counter Russia’s brutal rocket attacks on cities and power stations, which it has carried out in an effective attempt to weaponize the bitter winter weather to break the will of Ukraine’s civilian population.
The meeting between Biden and Zelenskyy, who spoke repeatedly by phone and video link but have not met in person since the invasion, comes at a pivotal moment in the war. For months, Biden has carefully calibrated US shipments of arms and weapons systems to save Ukraine but avoid escalating the conflict into a catastrophic head-on clash between NATO and Russia. He rejected Ukrainian calls for a no-fly zone over the country. The Patriots — a long-range air defense system — would represent the deepest U.S. incursion into the conflict to date.
Wesley Clark, former NATO Supreme Allied Commander, Europe, said Zelenskyy’s trip reflects a critical moment when the fate of a war Ukraine cannot win without enhanced US support could be decided before Russia can regroup .
“This is a window of opportunity for Ukraine and also a window of danger,” Clark told CNN’s John Berman on AC360 on Tuesday.
“Russia is weak, (but) Russia will be stronger. This is a time when the United States must provide support. … This is the window, President Zelenskyy knows it – if he wants to defeat Russian aggression in Ukraine with US support,” Clark said.
“Wait until summer and it’ll be a whole different battlefield.”
But the highly public nature of Zelenskyy’s visit and the expected announcement regarding patriots also risk provoking Putin further if he signals that, as disastrous as the war has been for Russia’s troops, he stands before him in the long run and on the engagement of the west finally sets ebb.
His visit to Congress will also feed into an increasingly important debate on Capitol Hill over aid to Ukraine, with Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives in the new year. Some pro-Donald Trump members, who will have a significant impact on the thin GOP majority, have warned that billions of dollars in US cash sent to Ukraine should instead shore up the US southern border, with a wave of new migrants expected within days.
Aware of the pressure from his right flank, potential next speaker, GOP Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, has warned that Ukraine should not expect a “blank check” from the new House. While Ukraine still has strong Senate Republican support, this kind of shifting political dynamic appears to be shaping the Kremlin’s ideas about how long US resolve will last in a conflict on which Putin’s political survival may well depend.
Zelensky’s pre-Christmas trip promises the biggest public relations coup yet for the media-savvy comedian-turned-president, who has deftly tapped into the history and patriotic mythology of Western nations in a series of video addresses to war-torn lawmakers in Kyiv. While grateful for outside support, he often seems to be trying to shame the West into doing more and creating a deeper understanding among voters of the processes Ukraine is facing.
In March, for example, Zelensky conjured up Mount Rushmore and Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a Dream Speech” during a virtual address to Congress. He also pointed to two days of shame in modern history when Americans directly experienced the fear of air raids.
“Remember Pearl Harbor, that dreadful morning of December 7, 1941, when your skies were black with planes attacking you. Remember that,” said Zelenskyy. “Remember 9/11, a horrific day in 2001, when evil tried to turn your cities, independent territories, into battlefields. When innocent people were attacked, attacked from the air in a way no one else expected, there was no stopping it. Our country experiences the same thing every day.”
When Zelensky arrives in Washington, after months in the darkness of air raid blackouts at home, he could potentially witness the same revelation that Churchill made over the blazing lights of the capital at Christmas.
The British leader sailed to the United States during the war aboard HMS Duke of York, dodging submarines in the wintry Atlantic Ocean and boarding a plane from the Virginia coast to Washington, where he was met by President Franklin Roosevelt on December 22, 1941 became their joint press conference the next day.
Over days of brainstorming and meetings – fueled by Churchill’s regime of sherry for breakfast, scotch and soft drinks for lunch, champagne in the evening and a sip of 90-year-old brandy before bed – the two leaders planned and laid the defeat of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan laid the groundwork for the western alliance that Biden has reinvigorated in his support for Ukraine.
Churchill, who for months had longed for US involvement in World War II and knew that it was key to defeating Adolf Hitler, said during his visit: “I’m spending this anniversary and celebration far from my country, far from my family, and yet I cannot honestly say that I feel a long way from home.”
Zelenskyy is sure these kinds of heroes will be welcomed, and he hopes the additional US support means Washington truly has “drawn the sword for liberty and thrown away the scabbard,” as Churchill said in his speech before the Congress on the Roosevelt administration said on December 26th, 1941.
The Ukrainian leader is likely to appreciate the historical parallels. He paraphrased one of Churchill’s most famous war speeches in an emotional address to British MPs in March.
“We will not give up, we will not lose, we will go to the end,” he said.