Zelensky’s visit creates remarkable moment for two presidents

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Capping a year in which they each faced long hardships and defied grim predictions, the pair stood side by side at the White House on Wednesday – President Biden in a blue suit, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in olive green military shirt and heavy boots.

The stark sartorial contrast was one of the few differences on display as Biden and Zelensky welcomed each other and presented a united front during the Ukrainian leader’s visit to Washington, his first foreign appearance since invading Russia. The visit highlighted how the relationship between the two – a 44-year-old born in what was then the USSR and an octogenarian born in Scranton, Pennsylvania – unexpectedly became one of the most vital partnerships in world affairs.

“I stand here in the United States with President Biden on the same podium because I respect him as a person, as a president, as a human being,” Zelensky said Wednesday at a press conference. joint press. Biden replied, “This guy at heart is who he says he is. It is clear who he is. He is ready to give his life for his country.

The visit was important for both men.

It offered Zelensky, who briefly left a war-torn country, the opportunity to boast about his government’s achievements in resisting Russian aggression. It gave Biden the opportunity to reiterate his “America is Back” message and his defense of democracy that spoke to both domestic and international audiences, and to play the role of wise world leader that he has always attributed himself.

“The American people have been with you every step of the way, and we will stay with you. We will stay with you for as long as it takes,” Biden said. “What you do, what you have achieved matters not only to Ukraine, but to the whole world.”

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The meeting came as the two presidents face new challenges that could prove even more complex than the trials they faced in 2022.

Zelensky, whose challenges are clearly more existential, faces a grim winter of war made more treacherous by a brutal Russian attack on civilian infrastructure and Ukraine’s power grid. Biden is bracing for a House takeover by Republicans determined to harm him politically and investigate his son.

The shift in power in Congress could also affect Zelensky’s goals, as some Republicans have expressed interest in limiting US spending on the war in Ukraine. By design or not, Zelensky’s visit created a powerful moment that his supporters hope will dispel all doubt.

At each of his stops on Wednesday, Zelensky went out of his way to express his thanks to the American public for their continued support for Ukraine. “Thank you from our ordinary people to your ordinary people, the Americans,” Zelensky told Biden during a meeting in the Oval Office. “I really appreciate.”

The visit to the White House was a symbolic victory for Zelensky, which few expected to last when Russian President Vladimir Putin began sending thousands of troops and a barrage of missiles into Ukrainian territory. 300 days ago. As the Ukrainian military fought back, in some cases pushing Russian fighters out of occupied territories, Zelensky, a former comedian, unexpectedly became a global icon. Time Magazine selected him as the 2022 Person of the Year, which Biden mentioned during their Oval Office meeting.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California) hailed Zelensky in a letter inviting him to address Congress, and Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (DN.Y.) compared him to Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister during World War II.

“It’s always a great honor to welcome a foreign head of state to Congress,” Schumer said Wednesday, his blue suit and yellow tie matching the colors of the Ukrainian flag. “But it’s almost unheard of to hear a leader fighting for his life, fighting for the survival of his country and fighting to preserve the very idea of ​​democracy.”

While Zelensky has spoken virtually with foreign leaders and governing bodies around the world — including a speech to Congress in March — his decision to come to Washington before visiting Europe underscored “the unprecedented importance of United States for Ukrainian Democracy,” said Max Bergmann, director for Europe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It signals that America is back – and that’s Biden’s term – but there’s something real about it,” Bergmann said. “The United States has demonstrated that it is indispensable to European security.

Zelensky arrived at the White House in the same gear he wears to visit Ukrainian troops, and his full head of dark hair contrasted with Biden’s white locks. Biden, dressed in a blue and yellow tie, invited Zelensky into the Oval Office and the two were seen walking together along the White House colonnade, a powerful home image for Zelensky.

The two presidents had everything to gain by emphasizing their mutual support. And they made the most of it.

Zelensky presented Biden with a medal from a Ukrainian soldier. “He is very brave,” Zelensky said of the soldier. “And he said, ‘Give it to a very brave president.’ And I want to give that [to] you.”

Biden accepted it, saying it was “unearned but appreciated.”

As for Biden, he cited Zelensky’s Jewish background and noted that they met during Hanukkah, which celebrates the victory of a small nation over a powerful oppressor. “I don’t care if I say all politics is personal,” Biden said. “It’s about looking someone in the eye, and I mean that sincerely. I don’t think there’s any, any, no substitute for sitting face to face with friend or foe.

Beyond symbolism, Zelensky’s visit included concrete deliverables important to both leaders. Hours before Zelensky’s arrival, the White House announced that Biden had approved a new $1.85 billion security assistance package that includes a Patriot missile system. And as Ukraine’s president landed in Washington, lawmakers were scrambling to pass a spending package that included $44.9 billion in emergency aid for Kyiv.

With the GOP House takeover likely to reduce Biden’s legislative agenda, he is expected to focus more on foreign policy, an area where presidents have broad authority. Since midterms, Biden has traveled to Asia, made a state visit with France, endorsed a prisoner swap with Russia and hosted a summit for African leaders. But the fate of Ukraine will likely be the most important piece of Biden’s foreign policy legacy.

“The American people know that if we stand idly by in the face of such blatant attacks on freedom and democracy and the fundamental principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, the world would surely face worse consequences,” he said. Biden said on Wednesday.

At the same time, the US policy underlying the visit was important if not stated.

President Donald Trump was impeached in 2020 for refusing military aid and a White House meeting in Ukraine in an effort to pressure Zelensky to open an investigation into Hunter Biden. Now that Trump is officially challenging his successor, Zelensky’s visit offered the incumbent another opportunity to contrast his own approach with the beleaguered country.

While Trump has often berated America’s European allies and called NATO “obsolete,” Biden has touted the transatlantic partnership and tried to portray the United States as the indispensable world leader. The war in Ukraine offers a key test of Biden’s approach, and Zelensky used his visit to Washington to thank the US president.

“We are really fighting for our common victory against this tyranny,” Zelensky said. “And we’re going to win, and I really want [to] win together.

He paused before correcting himself.

“Not ‘want.’ Sorry,” he said. “I am on.”


Washington

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