Zelensky’s visit creates a significant moment for the two presidents

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They each stood side-by-side at the White House on Wednesday — President Biden in a blue suit, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyi in an olive-green military shirt and heavy boots — capping a year in which they each faced long odds and defied bleak predictions.

The stark sartorial contrast was one of the few contrasts on display during the Ukrainian leader’s visit to Washington, his first appearance abroad since Russia’s invasion, as Biden and Zelensky praised each other and presented a united front. It underscores how the relationship between two men — a then-44-year-old born in the Soviet Union and an octogenarian born in Scranton, Pa. — unexpectedly became one of the most important partnerships in global affairs.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and President Biden shared their hope for peace between Russia and Ukraine at a press conference on December 21. (Video: The Washington Post)

“I stand here in the United States on the same platform with President Biden because I respect him as a person, as a president, as a human being,” Zelensky said during a joint news conference on Wednesday. Biden retorted, “This guy says to his soul who he is. It’s clear who he is. He’s willing to give his life for his country.

The visit was significant for both.

This gave Zelensky, who had briefly left a war-torn country, an opportunity to tout his government’s achievements in standing up to Russian aggression. It gave Biden a chance to reiterate his “America is coming back” message and defense of democracy to domestic and international audiences, and to play the role of ambitious global leader he has always called himself.

“The American people are with you every step of the way, and we will be with you. We will be with you as long as it takes,” Biden said. “What you are doing, what you have achieved – this is important not only for Ukraine, but for the whole world.”

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Analysis: Zelensky finally gets his White House appointment

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

Zelensky’s challenges are clearly existential, facing a very treacherous war winter with a brutal Russian assault on civilian infrastructure and the Ukrainian power grid. Biden is bracing for a takeover of the House by Republicans determined to damage him politically and impeach his son.

A power shift in Congress could also affect Zelensky’s goals, as some Republicans have expressed a desire to limit US spending on the war in Ukraine. By design or not, Zelensky’s arrival created a powerful moment that his supporters hope will overcome any doubts.

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

Zelensky’s visit to the White House was a symbolic victory 300 days ago when Russian President Vladimir Putin began sending thousands of troops and missiles into Ukrainian territory. As Ukraine’s military fought back, in some cases driving Russian fighters out of occupied territory, Zelensky, a former comedian, unexpectedly became a global icon. Time magazine named him its 2022 Person of the Year, Biden noted during their Oval Office meeting.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) praised Zelensky in a letter inviting her 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 high 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 to hear that from a leader who is fighting for his life, fighting for the survival of his country and fighting to defend the concept of democracy is almost unheard of.”

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Although Zelensky has spoken virtually to foreign leaders and governing bodies around the world, including an address to Congress in March, his decision to come to Washington before heading to Europe “underscores America’s unparalleled importance to Ukrainian democracy,” said Max Bergman. Director for Europe at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It means America is back — it’s the time of Biden — but there’s something real about it,” Bergman said. “The US has demonstrated that it is vital to European security.”

In a meeting with President Biden at the White House on December 21, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky expressed deep gratitude for US support. (Video: The Washington Post)

Zelensky arrived at the White House in the same gear he wore to visit Ukrainian troops, and his full dark hair contrasted with Biden’s white mops. Biden, dressed in a blue and yellow tie, invited Zelensky to the Oval Office and the two were seen walking down the White House colonnade, a powerful image in Zelensky’s home.

Both presidents gained something by emphasizing their mutual support. They made the most of it.

Zelensky presented Biden with the Ukrainian Soldier’s Medal. “He was very brave,” Zelensky said of the soldier. “He said, ‘Give it to the bravest president.’ I want to give it to him [to] you.”

Biden accepted it, saying it was “inappropriate 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’m scoffing to say that all politics is personal,” Biden said. “It’s about looking someone in the eye, and I really mean that. I don’t think there’s any substitute for sitting face-to-face with friend or foe.

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Beyond the code, Zelensky’s visit included important concrete deliverables for both leaders. Hours before Zelensky’s arrival, the White House announced that Biden had approved a new $1.85 billion defense assistance package, including the Patriot missile system. As soon as the Ukrainian president landed in Washington, lawmakers were working to pass a spending package for Kiev, including $44.9 billion in emergency aid.

With the GOP House takeover likely to reduce Biden’s legislative agenda, he is expected to sharpen his focus on foreign policy, an area where presidents have broad authority. First Middle Ages, Biden traveled to Asia, held a state visit with France, approved a prisoner swap with Russia and hosted a summit for African leaders. But the fate of Ukraine will probably be the most important part of Biden’s foreign policy legacy.

“The American people know that if they stand up to such blatant attacks on the fundamental principles of freedom and democracy and sovereignty and territorial integrity, the world will surely face dire consequences,” Biden said Wednesday.

At the same time, it is noteworthy that American politics were not mentioned under the visit.

President Donald Trump was impeached in 2020 for withholding military aid from Ukraine and a White House meeting in an effort to pressure Zelensky to open an investigation into Hunter Biden. Now that Trump is formally challenging his successor, Zelensky’s arrival gave the incumbent another opportunity to challenge his own approach.

While Trump has often chastised America’s European allies and called NATO “obsolete,” Biden has sought to laud the transatlantic partnership and present America as the world’s indispensable leader. The war in Ukraine provides a key test of Biden’s approach, and Zelensky used his trip to Washington to thank the US president.

“We are really fighting for our common victory against this tyranny,” Zelensky said. “We will win, I really want to [to] Win together.”

He stopped before correcting himself.

“Don ‘t want.’ Sorry,” he said. “I’m sure.”

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