Zelensky slated to meet Biden, appear in Congress on Wednesday

Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via REUTERS
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visits Ukrainian service members at their position in the frontline town of Bakhmut, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, Ukraine December 20, 2022.

WASHINGTON – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Wednesday plans to appear in Washington to meet with President Joe Biden and visit Capitol Hill, according to people with knowledge of the plan – a trip that will mark Zelensky’s first public international appearance since Russia invaded Ukraine.

Biden and Zelensky are scheduled to meet at the White House, according to a U.S. official with direct knowledge of the visit, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the meeting was not yet publicly announced. The White House declined to comment.

Zelensky also plans to meet with congressional leaders to thank lawmakers for including funding for Ukraine in a spending package they are looking to pass this week, according to a congressional aide with knowledge of the plan.

He is expected to address members of Congress, and lawmakers are rescheduling plans to be in Washington, according to a second congressional aide with knowledge of the plan. The aides spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak on the record.

The visit comes as the Biden administration is expected to announce a new military aid package for Ukraine as early as Wednesday, according to a person familiar with the plans. The package is expected to include a Patriot missile battery, this person said.

Punchbowl News first reported on plans for Zelensky’s appearance.

Without disclosing Zelensky’s visit, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent a letter to her colleagues Tuesday, asking lawmakers to be “physically present” for a “very special focus on Democracy” on Wednesday night. The letter set off a scramble among lawmakers who had already left Washington.

Dozens of members of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus were also left in the dark about the plans, even though their group is always aware of discussions between the United States and Zelensky’s administration, according to several who, like other interviewed for this story, spoke on the condition of anonymity to outline private deliberations.

House members and aides were shocked to hear that Zelensky might visit the Capitol on Wednesday, a day when the Senate is hoping to get out of town after passing a year-long government funding bill. Zelensky will appear before Congress at a time when Capitol Hill Republicans have begun to express deep displeasure with America funding their ongoing war with Russia.

Both the House and Senate must vote to pass resolutions that allow for a joint session to Congress. The earliest the House would vote is Wednesday evening.

The planned trip to Capitol Hill comes amid a busy stretch of year-end business for the Democratic-controlled Congress, which is seeking to pass a sweeping government funding bill that includes an additional $44.9 billion in emergency military and economic assistance for Ukraine.

Zelensky on Tuesday made an unexpected visit to troops defending Bakhmut, currently the site of some of the bloodiest fighting in the war. In remarks Tuesday, Zelensky said this week is “extremely important for Ukraine – in order to get through this winter and next year. In order to gain the necessary support and for the Ukrainian flag to finally prevail on all sections of our border.”

He added, “Our fighters gave me our flag today and asked to pass it on to those whose decisions are very important for Ukraine, for all our warriors. We will definitely do it. We will definitely endure. We will definitely get the necessary support for Ukraine!”

Zelensky’s travel plans to the United States were kept extremely close out of concern that his security could be compromised. Congressional aides worried that the information of his travel getting out could have immediately endangered his chances of leaving Ukraine, people with knowledge of the situation said.

Biden has made holding together a Western coalition supporting Ukraine a central mission of his presidency. Although all of the countries in the coalition are grappling with the economic consequences of the war, they have shown few signs of withdrawing or softening their support even as heat prices rise during the winter.

Biden and Zelensky have spoken numerous times since Russia’s invasion began in February, sometimes talking as frequently as every couple of weeks. While the two have had a friendly relationship and have gone to great lengths to praise each other in public, the relationship also has had moments of tension.

In the conflict’s first months, for instance, Zelensky often lambasted the United States and other Western countries for not doing enough, even after Congress and the White House approved multibillion-dollar aid and weapons packages.

While Biden understood as a fellow politician that Zelensky had to advocate forcefully for his people, he also told the Ukrainian leader privately that it would be hard for him to keep asking Congress for money if Zelensky appeared ungrateful and kept saying it was not enough, according to a former White House official with knowledge of the situation, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private call.

In another call this summer, Zelensky told Biden the United States needed to do more. Biden stopped the Ukrainian leader and reminded him that the effects of the war were not lost on Americans, who were paying higher gas prices amid record inflation, according to a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a private call.

Still, the White House has voiced unwavering support for Ukraine. When asked how long the United States can be expected to pour billions into the war effort, Biden and his top aides frequently say, “As long as it takes.”

Biden has also made clear he will not force Zelensky to a negotiation with Russia before he is ready. “Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine” has become a common refrain of the president.

Biden earlier this month said that he would be willing to meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin about ending the war in Ukraine – but stressed that such a discussion is not imminent because Putin has not shown a willingness to seek a peaceful resolution and has employed horrific tactics against Ukrainian civilians.

“I’m prepared to speak with Mr. Putin if there is an interest in him deciding he’s looking for a way to end the war,” Biden said. “If that’s the case, in consultation with my French and NATO friends, I’ll be happy to sit down with Mr. Putin to see what he has in mind. He hasn’t done that.”

On Capitol Hill, several members and aides who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private deliberations saw the last-minute invite to Zelensky as Pelosi’s final major act as speaker. Throughout the course of the year, Pelosi has made several trips around the world to countries she has championed as fighters of democracy, from Ukraine to Taiwan.

Several members who were in town for other meetings were planning to leave town Wednesday ahead of a cross-country snowstorm or stay home and vote remotely to pass the yearly government funding bill. Given Zelensky’s planned visit, many have delayed their flights or decided it is worth the trip back to Washington to honor him in person.