Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky will arrive in Washington on Wednesday (21 December), where he will meet US President Joe Biden. It is his first known foreign trip since Russia invaded Ukraine in February.
The pair will address a joint session of Congress and meet in the Oval Office for extended talks about the military and economic assistance that the United States is providing for Ukraine. It is likely at this time that Biden will officially announce he is supplying nearly $2 billion in additional security aid, including a Patriot missile battery and precision guided bombs for fighter jets.
Although Zelensky has regularly hosted foreign leaders in Kyiv over the past few months - and spoken to world leaders via telephone and video call - this surprise trip is a key moment as it is the first in-person meeting since Vladimir Putin’s brutal war began ten months ago. In the time since, tens of thousands on both sides of the conflict have been killed and wounded, and there has been devastation for multiple cities in Ukraine.
The fact that Biden is Zelensky’s first foreign meeting is a clear signal of the importance of Ukraine’s relationship with the US. It also comes as US politicians are set to vote on a year-end spending package that includes about $45 billion in emergency assistance to Ukraine.
Zelensky headed abroad after making a dangerous trip on Tuesday (20 December) to what he called the “hottest spot” on the 800-mile frontline of the conflict - the city of Bakhmut in Ukraine’s contested Donetsk province. He praised his troops for their “courage, resilience and strength” while artillery boomed in the background.
Later, he confirmed his trip on Twitter: “On my way to the US to strengthen the resilience and defence capabilities of Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, in a statement on Tuesday (20 December), White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Biden is looking forward to the visit and that the address to Congress will demonstrate “the strong, bipartisan support for Ukraine”. She added: “The visit will underscore the United States’ steadfast commitment to supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes, including through the provision of economic, humanitarian, and military assistance.”
US and Ukrainian officials have made clear that they do not see an end to the war coming anytime soon - and are preparing to continue fighting. As part of this, the US is providing a new air defence system and has said it will train Ukraine’s troops on how to use it “in a third country”. A spokesperson added that this will “take some time”.
However, Biden has repeated that while US forces will arm and train Ukraine, they will not be directly engaged in the conflict.
Ukraine has long been asking for more powerful air defence from the West to help protect its infrastructure from Russia. In particular, the invaded country is hoping to protect its energy sector which has been targeted by Putin, plunging millions into the darkness and cold - with temperatures several degrees below freezing.
The two world leaders first discussed the idea of a visit to Washington on 11 December, with a formal invitation following three days later - according to a senior US administration official. The spokesperson briefed reporters on condition of anonymity on account of the sensitive nature of the visit.
Zelensky accepted the invitation on 16 December and it was confirmed on Sunday (18 December). The White House then began coordinating with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to arrange the congressional address, and consulted with Zelensky on security for his departure from Ukraine and travel to Washington.
There is an expectation that Russia will continue its attacks on Ukraine despite the trip.
In terms of overall spending on direct military support since the start of the conflict, the US has committed far more than any other country. But this latest set of funding pending before Congress would be the biggest yet and is meant to ensure that support flows to Ukraine’s war effort for months to come.