President Joe Biden walks with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky through the colonnade of the White House
Washington (AFP) - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday won vows of long-term US support including a new missile defense system during his first foreign trip since Russia’s invasion, with President Joe Biden promising him, “You will never stand alone.”
Three hundred days after Russian leader Vladimir Putin attacked Ukraine with hopes of swift conquest, Zelensky enjoyed a hero’s welcome on a lightning trip to Washington, but he also made clear he would not accept any pressure to compromise.
Zelensky – whose media savvy and rugged demeanor have helped rally the world to Ukraine’s cause – kept his trademark military fatigues rather than switching to a suit as Biden rolled out the red carpet, affectionately putting his hand over the wartime leader’s shoulder as they entered the White House.
“You will never stand alone,” Biden told him at a joint news conference.
Volodymyr Zelensky holds a joint press conference with President Joe Biden in the East Room of the White House
“The American people are 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 that Americans “understand in our bones that Ukraine’s fight is part of something much bigger.”
“Together I have no doubt we’ll keep the flame of liberty burning bright and the light will remain and prevail over the darkness.”
Zelensky will later deliver an address to Congress, which is finalizing a new $45 billion package for Ukraine heading into the new year, before flying back with barely half a day on the ground.
- More military aid -
Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky presents a medal to US President Joe Biden
Zelensky flew in secret to the United States straight after a risky visit to the frontline in Bakhmut, where Ukrainian and Russian troops have both endured heavy tolls in shooting and shelling over the past two months.
Zelensky presented Biden with an award that he said was handed to him on the ground by a “real hero” – a captain on the ground of a HIMARS rocket system that has been a game-changer on the field.
“He’s very brave and he said, give it to very brave president,” Zelensky said in the Oval Office.
As Zelensky arrived, the United States announced another $1.85 billion from previously budgeted funds for Ukraine, including for the first time the advanced Patriot air defense system, which is capable of shooting down cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles.
Zelensky voiced appreciation for the “very important step,” saying the Patriot systems “will strengthen our air defense significantly.”
Ukraine fears a rising onslaught of missiles and has faced a slew of attacks from drones, many bought by Russia from Iran, as Moscow pummels power plants and other civilian infrastructure just as the country shivers in the winter cold.
Volodymyr Zelensky receives a signed Ukrainian flag from troops during a visit to the frontline town of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region
Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that new weapons deliveries would lead to an “aggravation of the conflict” and do not “bode well for Ukraine.”
Speaking with senior military officials during a televised address, President Vladimir Putin contended that Moscow was not to blame for the invasion and agreed with an assessment that Russia needed a larger army.
“The combat capabilities of our armed forces are increasing constantly,” Putin said, adding that Russia will also “improve the combat readiness of our nuclear triad.”
“What is happening is, of course, a tragedy – our shared tragedy. But it is not the result of our policy. It is the result of the policy of third countries,” he added.
- ‘Just peace’ -
The United States and Ukraine scoff at suggestions that the invasion was caused by anything other than Putin and say he is not serious about any negotiated settlement.
Ukraine received most aid in 2022
Both Biden and Zelensky said they supported a “just peace” – with the Ukrainian leader standing firm that he will not be any territorial compromise with Russia, which also seized the Crimean peninsula in 2014.
“For me as a president, just peace is no compromises as to the sovereignty, freedom and territorial integrity of my country – the payback for all the damages inflicted by Russian aggression,” Zelensky said.
“As a father, I would like to emphasize – how many parents lost their sons and daughters on the frontlines? So what is ‘just peace’ for them?” he said, dismissing financial compensation as insufficient.
Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen at the Kremlin in Moscow on December 20, 2022
Lawmakers compared Zelensky’s trip to Winston Churchill’s Christmas-time appearance in the Capitol in 1941, days after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor brought the United States into World War II.
“It is particularly poignant for me to be present when another heroic leader addresses the Congress in a time of war – and with democracy itself on the line,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Ukraine enjoys wide support in the United States but there has been criticism from several far-right Republicans who either oppose the aid or have voice sympathy for Putin.
Kevin McCarthy, the House Republican leader, said before midterm elections that the new Congress would not give a “blank check” to Ukraine, a comment seen as seeking to mollify the right-wing flank of his party.
But Mitch McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, said he looked forward to seeing the “inspiring” Zelensky and said that defeating Russia was in the US interest.
“The Ukrainian people are courageous and innocent and they deserve our help,” McConnell said on the Senate floor.