Joshua Cossin is the new White House Correspondent for JURIST. He attended the Zelenskyy-Biden press conference in the East Room Wednesday, and files this report.
Exactly 300 days since the war between Russia and Ukraine began, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has taken leave of his besieged nation for the first time by taking an unannounced trip to Washington DC. During his visit yesterday, Zelenskyy met privately with President Biden, held a joint press conference at the White House that I attended, and made an impassioned request for continued assistance to a special joint session of Congress just days before Christmas. At the press conference in the East Room, Biden reiterated his continued support of the Ukrainian people saying, “You do not stand alone,” and he also announced an additional $1.8 billion dollars in military aid, $340 million dollars in civilian assistance, and the provision of the long-requested MIM-104 Patriot missile system.
Recently named Time Magazine’s person of the year, Zelenskyy famously turned down the US’s offer at the start of the war to be evacuated from Kyiv stating, “The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.” Over the last 10 months, the US has done just that by sending nearly $50 billion dollars in aid to Ukraine with at least half of that providing direct military supplies, training, or equipment. Ukraine has also received around $60 billion from other NATO members and allies.
Over the last 10 months, Zelenskyy has made numerous addresses to other nations and even the UN remotely. Zelenskyy’s decision to leave Ukraine for the first time since the initial onset of hostilities illustrates the critical role played by the US in the conflict and the strategic importance to Ukraine of securing continued support in the coming year. If there had been any doubts as to the purpose of the meeting, they were quickly dispelled when Zelenskyy stepped out of his car in his combat boots and now signature tactical army green attire, the same colors often worn by his forces in the field. Carrying himself as the leader of a nation embroiled in an active conflict, he was here to talk about the war.
Zelenskyy was greeted warmly by the Bidens before being ushered inside with Biden’s arm around him as if old friends. The two then held a bilateral meeting in the Oval Office where they exchanged gifts. After thanking all the American people, Zelenskyy offered Biden a Ukrainian Cross of Military Merit. The medal was sent by a soldier named “Pavlo” who is a commander of a US-supplied HIMARS battery in the city of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region, which has seen some of the fiercest fighting in the war and where Zelenskyy had visited just 48 earlier. In return, Biden presented Zelenskyy with two US command coins, one for Zelenskyy and the other for the officer who had sent Biden his medal. Challenge coins originally served to show membership in a specific military unit, but are often exchanged between soldiers who fight and serve alongside one another as a gesture of respect. The Commander in Chief’s personal coin is the highest-ranking coin in the US military and one of the rarest. The two then proceeded to a closed meeting to discuss strategy and support for the coming year.
The Presidents then held a joint press conference where they both emphasized the “need to stand together in 2023.” In Biden’s statement, he praised the Ukrainian people’s “steel backbone,” “love of country,” and “unbreakable spirit.” He also denounced Putin’s “unprovoked and unjustified assault” on Ukraine as well as his “outrageous atrocities” and recent escalation by “targeting critical infrastructure” across Ukraine leaving millions without power and “using winter as a weapon.” Finally, he called on Congress to pass an additional $45 billion dollars in aid to Ukraine saying that “Ukraine’s fight is part of something much bigger” and that if we do not assist them the “world will surely face worse consequences.”
Zelenskyy opened his statement by thanking the “people of America” who, throughout the war have “done so much for the people of Ukraine.” He also thanked Biden for his “candid support” saying that they had “become real partners and allies.” He then said that the additional funds and supplies were “good news” for Ukraine and the Patriot missiles would be used to restore a “safe Ukrainian airspace.” He went on to add that “every dollar of this investment will go to strengthening global security” and that he believed that “regardless of changes in congress I believe there will be bipartisan and bicameral support.” He also addressed the ongoing destruction of crucial infrastructure, suggesting that further sanctions against Russia were being discussed and potential legal actions explored. Finally, he indicated that although peace is desirable it is “important to stay on course and work on the integrity of the country and rule of law.”
When asked about the future of the coalition in the coming year Biden said he had no concerns about the unity of the coalition saying that “Putin thought he would weaken NATO instead he strengthened NATO.” Zelenskyy said his message to the American people was that “we have the same values” and the “same understanding of life” the same “value of life” and that he “wishes us peace,” but that we can only truly understand when “these terrorists come to your houses.” He also said he appreciated the US’s support and “I really want to win together… Not want… I am sure.”
When the Presidents were asked about a just peace Zelenskyy responded that he didn’t know if a just peace was possible and wondered if a just war could genuinely exist. However, he went on to say that a “just peace” for Ukraine would have to include “no compromises to sovereignty, integrity, or freedom” and that recompense for the extensive damages inflicted by Russia would have to be made. He also said that “no compensations are enough for those who have lost children” and worried that “more parents might live for vengeance as time goes on.” President Biden added that Zelenskyy, unlike Putin, has been open to peace but that peace must follow further “success on the battlefield.”
Biden also responded to a question about what he took away from the in-person meeting. He said that “all politics are personal” and that there was “no substitute for sitting down in person with a friend or foe.” He also stated that Putin “will fail” and “has failed in the past” and it was “important he sees President Zelenskyy and I [are] two countries united together.” He added that Zelenskyy, in contrast, is someone who very clearly “would give his life for this” and “will do everything in his power to succeed.” In addressing Russian claims that the Patriot missile system was an escalation, Biden clearly stated that the system was a “defensive system” that would not escalate the conflict. Biden also addressed concerns that the US has not provided long-range offensive missile systems. He said that the US had specific NATO obligations and that there was a desire to not further escalate the war with such systems, but reiterated that Ukraine would receive what it needed to win.
After the conference, Zelenskyy then left for the Capitol where he gave an inspiring speech to Congress in English in which he thanked the United States for its support already in the war and asked for further “investment in the global security and democracy” of the world as the war continued.
After his address
, Zelenskyy left DC to return home to Ukraine having spent less time in the US than he spent traveling to it just one way. Although the success of the trip itself will likely remain unclear for some time, Zelenskyy’s personal conviction is clear and the pivotal role played by the US in the ongoing conflict has been clearly illustrated.