It was entirely fitting that Ukraine’s President Volodomyr Zelenskyy wore his battle fatigues to the White House on Wednesday. That's because the battle he is successfully leading against the Russian invaders who have attacked his country is being fought as much in Washington as it is along the front lines of the war.
Zelenskyy faced far greater personal risk when on Tuesday he wore his now signature khaki uniform to meet with his troops in Bakhmut in Ukraine’s Donetsk Province. But coming to Washington required a different kind of courage and a statesman’s skills—rather than those of the successful commander-in-chief he is now universally acknowledged to be.
Leaving Ukraine for the first time since Russia’s February escalation of its unjust onslaught against its neighbor was not without physical risks. But meeting with President Joe Biden in the White House and speaking to a joint session of Congress requires Zelenskyy to draw on his considerable communications skills, authenticity, charm, and hard won credibility in very different ways than how he’d utilize those talents during regular visits to meet with his army.
American support will remain crucial to Ukraine’s ability to defeat Russia and reclaim the land Vladimir Putin is seeking to illegally seize. Zelenskyy’s task was to ensure that support remained unwavering and of the specific nature of which his nation most needs it—in terms of weapons systems, as well as economic and humanitarian aid.
His D.C. meetings began with a meeting with the man who has been his most important partner in this war, President Biden. The two leaders have been linked in ways that would have been impossible to predict just a year ago.
Both were grievously underestimated by Putin. Both have risen to the demands of standing up to Russia’s vaunted military in ways that have produced dramatic successes for Ukraine and humiliation for Russia. Both were, perhaps, also underestimated in their own countries when the war began, certainly neither was seen as a wartime leader.
But today, the two are the Roosevelt and Churchill of the Ukraine war, with Biden offering American might to bolster the courage of an ally who is defending his nation and waging a battle that is crucial for both allied countries. Unlike Roosevelt and Churchill—who were drawn from the aristocracy of their societies—Biden and Zelenskyy are more up-by-their-bootstraps working class leaders who are plain-spoken and who succeed by virtue of their authenticity.
The two are now close partners who will be forever linked in the eyes of history. That is why, to some degree, the meetings at the White House were the easier part of Zelenskyy’s trip. Biden and his team have been unwavering in their support for Ukraine and the president again reiterated his commitment to that support.
He also promised Ukraine more aid, much needed military technologies— including a Patriot missile battery and JDAM precision-guided munition kits—and pledged the U.S. would support Ukraine for the duration its fight with the Russians. Zelenskyy and Biden both affirmed they viewed the ultimate goal to be the permanent assurance of the security and borders of a sovereign Ukraine. The two also demonstrated in their press conference following their meeting, a clearly genuine respect and affinity for one another.
While Biden and Zelenskyy privately discussed whether negotiations could someday begin with Russia, they remained unified publicly in focusing on achieving the military successes necessary to ensure a positive outcome of potential peace talks.
That stance is vitally important to achieving their objectives with multiple audiences—from lifting the morale of Ukrainians to letting Russia know there will be no let up in the flow of resources to the army they are facing. It also sends a message to Europe and other Western allies that the U.S. will continue to lead the contributions of the 50-nation contact group supporting Ukraine. Crucially, it sends a message to Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives that the administration is committed to fighting whatever domestic political battles are necessary to keep supporting Kyiv—and the interests of the U.S. and NATO—in this war.
The last audience—Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives—represents the toughest challenge of Zelenskyy’s visit. His appearance before Congress Wednesday night is, in large part, intended to forestall efforts by some on the right that want to cut back on aid to Ukraine.
Those outliers—the far-right fringe members who mouth Putin talking points while hoping for more influence in the next Congress—are seeing their relative influence over the Ukraine issue undercut this week by the fact that the current Congress is expected to approve approximately $45 billion in additional aid for Ukraine—an amount that should support the country’s needs for many months.
That this trip happened at all, and on the terms which the two leaders sought, makes it a success. Zelenskyy elevated his stature and won a reaffirmation of support from his most vital ally. He received a bipartisan commitment for new weapons systems and a massive new tranche of aid. He sent a message to those who might be inclined to cut back on aid to Ukraine in the future that they are in the clear minority. (Which is a good thing for the U.S., given that those Ukraine-skeptics on the right are actually giving aid and comfort to Russian enemies of the Western Alliance and the values it seeks to defend.)
Biden punctuated 2022 with a focus on what has been, thus far, one of his signature foreign policy successes. It also stands, for the moment, as one of the great U.S. foreign policy triumphs in recent decades. That should enhance both his international and domestic stature.
The only major losers from this trip were Vladimir Putin and the Russian hardliners whose careers and national interests have been permanently damaged by their catastrophic Ukraine blunder. They surely expected the resolve to support Ukraine would wane—but it is showing no sign of doing so yet. Oh, and there’s one other loser, of course. And that would be the former U.S. president who three years ago this week was impeached by the U.S. House of Representatives for trying to blackmail Zelenskyy.
How far we have come in those three years, from the impeachment of our ex-president to the well-deserved welcome Zelenskyy received from the current U.S. president and members of both Houses of Congress. Trump is sinking ever-deeper into disgrace. Zelenskyy is globally acknowledged as a genuine hero who has also recently won recognition, as Biden pointed out in what must be a particularly galling turn of events for Trump, Time magazine’s 2022 selection as Man of the Year.