Zelensky Will Meet With Biden in Washington and Address Congress, Officials Say
WASHINGTON — President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine will meet with President Biden at the White House on Wednesday and later deliver a prime-time address to a joint session of Congress, a daring trip abroad intended to reaffirm American support for his country, White House officials announced late Tuesday night.
“Three hundred days ago, Russia launched a brutal assault against Ukraine,” Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, said in a statement confirming Mr. Zelensky’s trip to Washington. “The visit will underscore the United States’ steadfast commitment to supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes, including through the provision of economic, humanitarian and military assistance.”
Senior administration officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of concerns about Mr. Zelensky’s safety, said the risks involved in such a visit — with the wartime leader leaving his country for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine in February — were high, and that planning for his arrival had been conducted under intense secrecy.
Mr. Zelensky will arrive in the United States almost 10 months after President Vladimir V. Putin ordered Russian troops into Ukraine and as Congress considers approving nearly $50 billion in aid to help Ukraine’s forces battle Russia next year. That would bring the total amount of American aid to more than $100 billion.
“He’s a national and global hero — I’m delighted to be able to hear from him,” Senator Mitt Romney, Republican of Utah, said Tuesday after hearing of Mr. Zelensky’s visit.
The Ukrainian president’s trip comes as Russia’s assault heads into a second, brutal year. Russia’s hopes for a quick defeat of Ukraine failed, but have given way to a series of grinding and devastating attacks on civilians that have left major cities without heat or electricity in the bitter cold of Ukraine’s winter.
During his meeting with Mr. Biden at the White House, Mr. Zelensky is set to accept the latest American pledge of military assistance: a highly sophisticated Patriot missile battery that senior administration officials said would provide Ukraine with far better defenses against air attacks from Russian missiles and drones. The missile battery will be part of a nearly $2 billion package of security assistance that will also include other support for Ukraine’s air defenses.
White House officials said the announcement of the new security package by the American president — with Mr. Zelensky by his side — was meant to send a powerful message to Mr. Putin and other world leaders, along with people in Ukraine and America, that Mr. Biden would not waver in his efforts to help Ukraine defeat its Russian aggressors.
In her statement Tuesday night, Ms. Jean-Pierre said the meeting of the two leaders would “underscore the United States’ enduring commitment to Ukraine” and was part of a continuing effort by Mr. Biden to rally “the world to support the people of Ukraine as they defend their sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
A senior administration official said that Mr. Biden would not come to the meeting on Wednesday “with a message that is about pushing or prodding or poking Zelensky in any way” toward finding a diplomatic end to the war with Russia. The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the trip had not been formally announced, said Russia had given no indication it was willing to engage in good-faith talks about ending the war.
But the official also said Mr. Biden would not allow the United States to be drawn into an active war with Russia on Ukraine’s behalf, a pledge the president had made before Russian forces entered Ukraine at the end of February.
After meeting with Mr. Biden and members of his national security team, Mr. Zelensky is expected to hold a news conference at the White House, officials said. He will then head to Capitol Hill for what is likely to be an electrifying appearance before a joint session of Congress as Democratic control of the House — and the reign of Representative Nancy Pelosi of California as speaker — nears its end.
While Mr. Biden has vowed to continue his support “for as long as it takes,” he faces some resistance in Congress, where Republicans are poised to take control of the House on Jan. 3. Just hours before news of Mr. Zelensky’s visit broke, Republican leaders in that chamber had instructed rank-and-file lawmakers to oppose a roughly $1.7 trillion spending bill that includes the Ukraine aid.
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Some Republicans in the House have repeatedly opposed previous packages that sent billions of dollars in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, suggesting the money is wasteful or better spent in the United States. On Tuesday, Representative Lauren Boebert of Colorado, a far-right Republican, posted on Twitter scoffing at the release of the new aid.
Others indicated late Tuesday that their support for Ukrainian aid would be outweighed by their opposition to the spending measure, which must be passed by Friday to avoid a government shutdown. Senator Kevin Cramer, Republican of North Dakota, said voting against the spending bill “doesn’t mean we don’t support Ukraine.”
“Our first obligation is to the people we work for, not the people he works for,” he said of Mr. Zelensky.
The spending bill, including the funding for Ukraine, is expected to clear Congress by the end of the week, though votes for final passage have not yet been scheduled.
Mr. Zelensky’s trip to the United States was set in motion nine days ago during a telephone call between the two leaders, a senior administration official said. The White House formally invited Mr. Zelensky a week ago, and plans for a speech to Congress began in earnest on Sunday, when the government of Ukraine confirmed his intention to travel to the United States.
In the first days and weeks of the full-scale Russian invasion, a Russian attack intended to take advantage of the leader’s absence might have stirred confusion in the Ukrainian military. But 10 months into the war, no prominent military analyst has recently questioned Ukrainian command and control of the military.
However, Russia’s military and political leadership have an arsenal of missiles that are regularly fired at Ukraine, and a barrage timed for a presidential trip abroad would be within Russia’s capabilities. Such a salvo might serve as a distraction for Mr. Zelensky or as a signal to Ukrainians or American officials that Russia has options to respond to deepening U.S.-Ukrainian ties.
Before news of his visit was first reported by Punchbowl News on Tuesday evening, there were suggestions that an unusual session of Congress was in the works. Ms. Pelosi had sent a letter to all House lawmakers earlier in the day, asking them to attend the Wednesday night session in person even though they have the ability to vote remotely.
“We are ending a very special session of the 117th Congress with legislation that makes progress for the American people as well as support for our democracy. Please be present for a very special focus on democracy Wednesday night,” Ms. Pelosi wrote.
Mr. Zelensky himself did not confirm his trip to the United States during a surprise visit to the battered city of Bakhmut on Tuesday. Mr. Zelensky was given a flag by Ukrainian soldiers who asked that he present it to Congress. He promised to give it to Mr. Biden, according to Ukrainian media who joined him on the trip.
While his office had no official comment on any imminent trip, the moment was captured on camera. It was not clear, however, that Mr. Zelensky was actually preparing to leave the country for the first time since the war began.
As the news of the potential visit emerged on Tuesday, multiple senators acknowledged it would be preferable for the Senate to pass the spending measure — including the security assistance for Ukraine — before Mr. Zelensky speaks to Congress.
“That would represent a best-case scenario,” said Senator John Thune of South Dakota, the No. 2 Republican. The spending bill passed a procedural hurdle on Tuesday with a resounding 70 to 25 vote.
A few lawmakers acknowledged that they had learned of the possible visit late Tuesday, but most lawmakers and aides appeared stunned by the news. While multiple senior lawmakers, including Ms. Pelosi and Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the minority leader, have made trips to Ukraine, Mr. Zelensky has not left since the war began. He spoke to Congress virtually earlier this year.
“That President Zelensky is going to make his first trip outside the country since the war began to speak to us, to thank us and to challenge us to continue to support the Ukrainian people, I think is the perfect ending to two years where President Biden has had some landmark successes,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware, who described Mr. Biden’s success rallying NATO and European allies behind Ukraine’s fight as the biggest international achievement this year.
Reporting was contributed by Carl Hulse and Annie Karni from Washington, Andrew E. Kramer from Kyiv, and Marc Santora from Warsaw.