Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy underscored the importance of American aid in Ukraine’s effort to fight off Russia’s invasion during a historic address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Wednesday, the culmination of the leader’s first known foreign trip since the war began.
Zelenskyy received thunderous applause from lawmakers, who are in the middle of voting on billions of dollars in new emergency assistance as Republicans pledge to give more scrutiny to money flowing to Ukraine when they take control of the House of Representatives in January.
“Your support is crucial, not just to stand in such a fight but to get to the turning point, to win on the battlefield,” he said.
“Your money is not charity,” he added later. “It is an investment in the global security and democracy.”
Zelenskyy spoke in English, billing his remarks as a “speech to Americans.” He repeatedly thanked not just legislators but “every American” who has donated to humanitarian causes, fundraised and even sheltered Ukrainians who fled the war.
He appeared to choke up when, at the beginning of his speech, he acknowledged members of the Ukrainian diaspora who had filled the viewing gallery above him — prompting a standing ovation on the House floor.
Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington came a day after he made a dangerous trip Tuesday to what he called the hottest spot on the 1,300-kilometre front line of the war, the city of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s contested Donetsk province.
At the conclusion of his speech to Congress, he presented Vice-President Kamala Harris and outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a Ukrainian flag autographed by soldiers he met with in Bakhmut. The two leaders held the flag behind Zelenskyy as he wished Americans a merry Christmas and “a victorious new year.”
Zelenskyy in turn was gifted the American flag that flew over the Capitol on Wednesday.
Earlier Wednesday, U.S. President Joe Biden welcomed Zelenskyy to the Oval Office, saying the U.S. and Ukraine would continue to project a “united defence” as Russia wages a “brutal assault on Ukraine’s right to exist as a nation.” Zelenskyy said he wanted to visit earlier and his visit now showed the “situation is under control, because of your support.”
Just before his arrival, the U.S. announced a US$1.8 billion military aid package for Ukraine, including for the first time Patriot surface-to-air missiles as well as precision-guided bombs for fighter jets. It represents an expansion in the kinds of advanced weaponry intended to bolster Ukraine’s air defences against what has been an increasing barrage of Russian missiles.
Congress, meanwhile, is set to approve about US$45 billion in emergency assistance to Ukraine as part of a much larger government spending package for the coming year. The money would be the biggest U.S. aid package yet, exceeding Biden’s US$37-billion request.
The Senate could approve the bill as soon as Wednesday. The House will then have to take it up and pass the measure before midnight Friday to avoid a partial-government shutdown.
Although Biden vowed support for Ukraine will last well into 2023, future approvals of U.S. aid could become more difficult when Republicans take control of the House next month. GOP leader Kevin McCarthy, who is running to replace Pelosi as House speaker, has said his party will not write a “blank cheque” for Ukraine and said he wants more oversight to ensure all U.S. dollars are properly accounted for.
Some more conservative members of Congress have openly questioned the need for U.S. aid to Ukraine amid high inflation at home that have created an economic squeeze for millions of Americans.
The U.S. had sent nearly US$50 billion to Ukraine so far this year before Wednesday’s military package was announced. The number includes US$23 billion in military aid that Ukrainian soldiers have told Global News was a “game-changer” that has “saved” them during the war.
Zelenskyy assured lawmakers Wednesday that all money Ukraine receives is being handled “in the most responsible way.” He also noted American soldiers will never be asked to fight on behalf of Ukraine, refuting some conservatives’ concerns that the U.S. is being drawn into a direct war against Russia.
“I assure you that Ukrainian soldiers can perfectly operate American tanks and places themselves,” he said.
It was unclear when the Patriot missile system would arrive on the front lines in Ukraine, given that U.S. troops will have to train Ukrainian forces. The training, expected to be done in Germany, could take several months, the Pentagon said Wednesday.
Zelenskyy’s speech also attempted to appeal to American values and draw comparisons between the two countries’ fights for independence.
“Your well-being is the product of your national security, the result of your struggle for independence and your many victories,” he said. “We Ukrainians will also go through our war of independence and freedom with dignity and success.”
Russia’s invasion, which began Feb. 24 and has now lasted 300 days, has lost momentum. The illegally annexed provinces of Donetsk, Kherson, Luhansk and Zaporizhzhia remain fiercely contested.
With the fighting in the east at a stalemate, Moscow has used missiles and drones to attack Ukraine’s power equipment, hoping to leave people without electricity as freezing weather sets in.
Zelenskyy painted images of millions of Ukrainians spending Christmas by candlelight, without heating or running water, to drive the message home of the need for further support in the months to come.
“Russia could stop its aggression, really, if it wanted to,” he said. “But you can speed up our victory. I know it.”
— with files from the Associated Press