Volodymyr Zelensky receives a signed Ukrainian flag from troops during a visit to the frontline town of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region

Washington (AFP) - Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky arrived Wednesday in Washington on his first foreign trip since Russia’s invasion, with US leaders hailing him as “heroic” and pledging to provide new missile defense systems.

Zelensky – whose media savvy and rugged demeanor has helped him rally the world to Ukraine’s cause – landed in a US military plane at Andrews Air Force Base after a trip arranged secretly due to security concerns.

He will meet President Joe Biden at the White House before delivering an address to Congress, which is finalizing a new $45 billion package for Ukraine heading into the new year.

“I’m thrilled to have you here,” Biden tweeted shortly before Zelensky’s arrival. Television footage showed the plane being met by a large convoy on the runway.

Lawmakers compared his 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, a champion of Ukraine whose invitation to Zelensky will be one of her last acts before Republicans take control.

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.

Destruction at a school in the village of Bohorodychne, eastern Ukraine

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.

“We will continue to support Ukraine for as long as it takes, so that Kyiv can continue to defend itself and be in the strongest possible position at the negotiating table when the time comes,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement announcing the aid.

Zelensky while on his way to Washington tweeted that he hoped to “strengthen resilience and defense capabilities” of Ukraine.

- Putin also vows war funding -

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday that new weapons deliveries would lead to an “aggravation of the conflict” and do not “bode well for Ukraine”.

US President Joe Biden and Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky met in the Oval Office in September 2021

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.

Ukraine received most aid in 2022

“We don’t have any limits on funding. The country and the government is giving everything that the army asks for, everything,” Putin said.

Zelensky’s visit was quietly planned, beginning with a telephone call between Biden and Zelensky on December 11, followed by a formal invitation a week ago and confirmation of the visit on Sunday, US officials said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is seen at the Kremlin in Moscow on December 20, 2022

The visit will send Putin “a strong message of unity and resolve from the White House, from Washington, from the free world, on behalf of all the nations supporting Ukraine,” a senior White House official added.

But that does not include pressuring Zelensky into talks with Putin, the official stressed.

- Zelensky on frontlines -

Zelensky flies to the United States after a risky visit to the frontline in Bakhmut, where both sides have endured heavy tolls in constant shooting and shelling over the past two months.

Brutal trench warfare and artillery battles around Bakhmut – once known for its vineyards and salt mines – have flattened large portions of the city and its surroundings.

“Here in Donbas, you’re protecting all of Ukraine,” Zelensky told Ukrainian fighters.

“This is not just Bakhmut, this is fortress Bakhmut,” he said, handing out honors to Ukraine servicemen.

Soldiers gave Zelensky a Ukrainian flag with their names signed on it and asked him to present it to Biden and Congress.

Zelensky said they told him: “We have a difficult situation. The enemy is increasing their numbers. Our guys are braver, but we need more weapons.”