Zelenskyy makes his case in D.C. for more U.S. support for Ukraine

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had his message ready for President Joe Biden and the U.S. Congress during his surprise visit to Washington: Ukraine needs continued support to get through the winter, and more weapons if it’s going to win against Russia.

“Your support is crucial, not just to stand in such a fight, but to get to the turning point to win on the battlefield,” Zelenskyy told assembled lawmakers in an impassioned speech Wednesday evening. “We have artillery, yes. We have it. Is it enough? Quite honestly, not really.”

His remarks in the House chamber, dressed in his battle fatigues and combat boots on the dais and speaking entirely in English, capped his first trip outside Ukraine since Russia invaded in February.

During the day, Zelenskyy met with Biden and top Washington officials to make his case for providing more — and advanced — weapons and aid to Ukraine.

Just hours before landing in Washington, Zelenskyy received just that: a $1.85 billion package including weapons and aid. During a joint news conference, Zelenskyy thanked Biden for giving him a Patriot defense missile system, and promptly said he’s going to want more.

Biden’s response: “We're working on it.”

Weapons were at the center of the discussions between Zelenskyy and U.S. officials, as Ukraine pushes for more advanced and longer-range systems that can help it keep up its momentum against Russian forces amid a barrage of missile attacks. The U.S. has responded by increasing the amount and types of weapons it is supplying Ukraine, while shying away from supplying long-range missiles that could be used to strike deep inside Russia.

The Patriot system is the latest example. Providing the system — the first-ever transfer of a Patriot — to Ukraine was seen as a major gain for the country in its defense against Russia’s persistent airstrikes on the country’s energy infrastructure. Zelenskyy has been asking for months for the Patriot system, and so Biden’s announcement gives him a win.

But Zelenskyy made it clear he needs more such wins.

Responding to a reporter’s question about what message he’s sending to Putin with his visit, Zelenskyy said it's that the alliance with Biden is strong, then added: “You said, what’s going to happen after Patriots are installed? After that, we will send another signal to President Biden that we would like to get more Patriots.”

Asked if the Patriot system could be considered escalatory, Biden rejected the idea, arguing that it will be used to shoot down Russian missiles bombarding Ukrainian cities.

"It's not escalatory, it's defensive,” Biden said.

It will still be months until the Patriot system will arrive in Ukraine, along with “several months” to train Ukrainian armed forces to field it, a senior defense official told reporters after Zelenskyy arrived at the White House. The official stressed that the Patriot is not “a silver bullet” for Ukraine’s air defense needs. The goal is to help Kyiv boost its “layered, integrated approach” to protecting against Russian attacks using legacy Ukrainian systems and NATO-provided weaponry.

When asked at the press briefing about providing Ukraine with long-range missiles that could strike Russia, such as ATACMS, Biden warned that such weaponry could potentially break up NATO and the European Union.

“The idea that we would give Ukraine material that is fundamentally different than what's already going there would have a prospect of breaking up NATO, and breaking up the European Union, and the rest of the world,” Biden said. He also said allies “don’t want to start a third world war.”

Still, support for Ukraine will continue, both leaders said. Zelenskyy added that he believes that despite changes in Congress, “there will be bipartisan and bicameral support” for ongoing aid to Ukraine.

Zelenskyy’s trip to D.C. was a strategic show of unity between the two countries. But the briefing by the two leaders also revealed the worries that backing for Ukraine could wane as fighting drags on.

Officials in Washington and Kyiv fear that the new GOP-led Congress may be less willing to funnel money into the conflict, even as Moscow continues to bombard Ukrainian infrastructure, leaving millions of people without power.Ukrainian officials have expressed concern in recent days that Russia is planning a new offensive to take Kyiv as soon as January.

During his speech to Congress, Zelenskyy’s struggle to get through to Republican lawmakers was palpable. Several GOP skeptics sat stoically throughout the speech, even as their colleagues stood and applauded.

“I don't think it changed the hearts and minds of anybody,” said Rep. Kevin Hern (R-Okla.), the incoming Republican Study Committee chair, moments after the speech. “I think those who are going to just wholeheartedly support Ukraine are gonna continue to do it. People like me, we are gonna continue to stay in the realm of, ‘We got to protect this nation first.’”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer pointed to votes this week to confirm the U.S. ambassador to Russia and approve a spending package that includes $45 billion in emergency assistance to Kyiv as evidence that America is standing solidly behind Ukraine.

“By passing this omnibus and confirming an ambassador, we can send President Zelenskyy back to Ukraine with the message that the Senate, the Congress and the American people stand unequivocally behind the people of Ukraine, and we’re backing that up with real dollars and real resources,” he said.

One way the Biden administration has worked to keep allies both domestic and foreign aligned is by arguing that there is potential for peace in Ukraine, and that Ukraine is doing what’s needed to win that peace.

In regards to negotiations with Putin, Biden stressed that Zelenskyy is open to talks while the Russian leader isn’t.

“You have made it clear that he is open to pursuing. Let me put it this way, he's not open, but you're open to pursuing peace,” Biden said. “You're open to pursuing a just peace. We know that Putin has no intention, no intention of stopping this cold war."

Zelenskyy described a just peace as “no compromises as to the sovereignty, freedom and territorial integrity of my country.” In recent weeks, Putin has said he won’t consider peace talks with Ukraine if it means he has to concede territory that he illegally annexed.

"I think we share the exact same vision,” Biden said.

Sarah Ferris, Erin Banco, Olivia Beavers, Connor O’Brien, Paul McLeary and Olivia Olander contributed to this report.