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Experts react December 21, 2022

Experts react: The lasting impact of Zelenskyy’s Washington visit

By Atlantic Council experts

He’s the talk of this town. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who has captivated the world by rallying his country against a Russian invasion, visited Washington on Wednesday—his first trip out of the country in three hundred days of war. With stops at the White House and the Capitol, what messages did Zelenskyy send to US President Joe Biden, members of Congress, and the American people? What does this trip mean for him and for Ukraine? Here’s your expert guide to this historic visit. We’ll continue updating it as contributions roll in.

Watch Zelenskyy’s address to Congress

Click to jump to an expert reaction:

Analysis of Zelenskyy’s appearances at the White House and Congress

John Herbst: A powerful message sent to Moscow, with one awkward moment

Rachel Rizzo: Don’t expect a shift from Biden on long-range weapons

Melinda Haring: Zelenskyy’s shrewd speech should make an impression on Congress

Doug Klain: Zelenskyy strikes another contrast with Putin on the world stage

Yevgeniya Gaber: In the global war for democracy, Ukraine’s patriots need American Patriots

Analysis ahead of Zelenskyy’s arrival in Washington

John Herbst: Zelenskyy wants more advanced weapons and explicit support for a Ukrainian victory

Daniel Fried: The visit shows why the US is still the leader of the Free World

Melinda Haring: An attempt to ‘defuse the problem’ at the White House

Andriy Zagorodnyuk: A courageous Zelenskyy arrives at a pivotal moment in the war

Peter Dickinson: A plan to consolidate US support for a long struggle

Ian Brzezinski: A time for Washington to shed its exaggerated fear of escalation

Matthew Kroenig: Ukraine wants to be able to shoot the archer, not just the arrows

A powerful message sent to Moscow, with one awkward moment

Zelenskyy’s visit was a success for presidents Biden and Zelenskyy and strengthened the US-Ukraine relationship. With this visit, Ukraine received the Patriot air-defense system, the most advanced weapon system that the United States has yet to provide. This served as a clear message to Moscow that US investment in Ukraine’s defense will only grow. Zelenskyy’s cordial meeting with Biden and enthusiastically received address to Congress further underscored this. 

At the same time, the visit also made clear the ongoing nuances in the bilateral relationship. The decision to provide Patriots is very important, but the United States is still reluctant to provide the longer range artillery, tanks, and fighter jets that would expedite Ukraine’s victory. That victory is very much in US interests, because Vladimir Putin’s revisionist objectives go beyond Ukraine and threaten NATO allies. Biden’s one awkward moment during this visit came in the press conference when he was trying to explain why the United States would not provide offensive weapons. Zelenskyy came to the United States to enhance his relationship with Biden, so he did not directly challenge him on this; but in his congressional address he made a low-key pitch for more advanced weapons.

Many commentators are referring to Zelenskyy’s visit as an historic one. That is true only if Ukraine wins this war. Ukraine will win if US support for Ukraine does not wane; and that victory will come faster if the White House decides to send the weapons Ukraine is requesting. Zelenskyy’s visit was certainly a contribution to such an outcome.

John Herbst is the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former US ambassador to Ukraine.  

Don’t expect a shift from Biden on long-range weapons

Zelenskyy comes to Washington at the right time: The 118th Congress (with Republicans at the helm at the House of Representatives) commences on January 3, and the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion is just around the corner. To be clear, he deserved a hero’s welcome, and he got one. Zelenskyy hoped for two things during his visit: to thank the American people and ensure continued unity within the next Congress in terms of military and financial support to Ukraine, and to convince the Biden administration to send increasingly lethal weaponry, including the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS). 

During his visit, the Biden administration formally announced the shipment of the Patriot missile-defense system to Ukraine, which is good news (and something the Ukrainians have sought over the last few months). But the aim of the United States—to both support Ukraine while ensuring the United States and NATO don’t get pulled into a broader war—will continue to preclude the shipment of the sort of weaponry Zelenskyy really wants. At a White House press conference alongside Zelenskyy, Biden said about Ukraine: “I’ve never seen NATO and the EU more united about anything at all, and I see no sign of there being any change.” However, when asked about the ATACMS, Biden said that NATO is “not looking to go to war with Russia” and that that specific weaponry could shatter NATO unity. That should give us at least somewhat of a clear sense of where the Biden administration is (and has been) drawing the line in terms of support. I don’t expect that to change significantly in the coming months. 

Rachel Rizzo is a nonresident senior fellow at the Europe Center.

Zelenskyy’s shrewd speech should make an impression on Congress

Zelenskyy and Biden are the undisputed leaders of the free world. While Biden is a clunky speaker, his deep empathy and support for Ukraine will be his presidential legacy.

Zelenskyy is not a fluent speaker of English. Nevertheless he both delivered off-the-cuff remarks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and gave prepared remarks before Congress in English. Zelenskyy’s prepared remarks were shrewd: He thanked Congress repeatedly, reminded them that the fight for Ukraine is not just Kyiv’s problem, and dangled red meat in front of Republicans as he warned than Iran’s provision of drones for Russian use in Ukraine cannot be overlooked—or Tehran will threaten other allies. 

Zelenskyy and his team know that Congress and the American people control the purse. In his remarks with Biden, he thanked the American people first and repeatedly thanked Americans for their sacrifice and appealed to their decency.

His speech before Congress wasn’t his best—but blame the speechwriters. His historical references fell flat, but he did manage to elicit laughter at least once.

Zelenskyy was at his best when he teased Congress and said Ukrainian soldiers are more than capable of using American tanks and planes, and said directly that all US assistance is “not charity” and it’s used “in the most responsible way.” 

In sum, Zelenskyy guaranteed that US assistance will continue “as long as it takes,” as Biden has repeatedly pledged, and undercut skeptical arguments on the American right. 

Melinda Haring is the deputy director of the Eurasia Center.

Zelenskyy strikes another contrast with Putin on the world stage

The key takeaway from Zelenskyy’s historic visit to Washington—his first time leaving Ukraine since the February invasion—is that Ukrainians do not stand alone in their fight for survival. The images of Zelenskyy being embraced in the White House by Biden stand in stark contrast to Putin’s recent public appearances with the dictator he propped up in Belarus and the propagandists convincing more Russians to die in Ukraine. 

Despite fears that a Republican-led US House could stall further aid, support for Ukraine remains bipartisan and overwhelmingly popular with the American public. Perhaps Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said it best on Wednesday: “Continuing our support for Ukraine is morally right, but it is not only that. It is also a direct investment in cold, hard, American interests.” It was important for Congress, and Americans, to finally hear first-hand from Zelenskyy why their support matters.

Washington has provided historic and nation-saving aid to Ukraine, now totaling more than one hundred billion dollars. But the United States still needs to step up—both by catching up with other nations by rightly recognizing Russia’s crimes in Ukraine as genocide, but also by showing that giving Ukraine the weapons it needs to win won’t provoke Moscow into starting a new war on top of the one it’s already losing. Ukraine is asking for critical weapons and armor, and allies such as Germany can be nudged in the right direction by a strong example from the United States, which continues to limit Kyiv’s ability to end this war sooner. For fear of provoking Putin, the White House said earlier this year it wouldn’t send HIMARS—the game-changing system with which one Ukrainian officer earned a medal, which he sent with Zelenskyy to give to Biden as a thanks. All that’s happened since the United States sent HIMARS is that Ukraine’s victories on the battlefield are more numerous.

Doug Klain is a nonresident fellow at the Eurasia Center.

In the global war for democracy, Ukraine’s patriots need American Patriots

Three hundred days into the war, the situation in Ukraine has approached a use-it-or-lose-it moment. With Russian massive attacks on critical infrastructure, millions of Ukrainians struggling to survive through the cold winter, and Ukrainian armed forces holding the front line despite the overwhelming Russian firepower, the war has entered a new phase. So far, Ukrainians have proved to be super effective and efficient in using the limited arsenal of arms supplied by their partners, oftentimes outperforming expectations and showing miracles of creativity and resilience. Reaching one hundred thousand Russian casualties and taking back more than a half of the initially occupied territories speaks for itself.

However, all miracles have their limits, and the reality is grim. Though undertrained and underequipped, thousands of Russian soldiers have been mobilized in an ambitious plan to increase its military to 1.5 million. Despite international pressure, Russia has bolstered its attack capabilities with new batches of Iranian drones (and, potentially, ballistic missiles) and created multiple new units in Belarus to renew its assault on Ukraine from the north. To deter future waves of Russian aggression, let alone to start the counter-offensive, Ukrainian armed forces critically need to boost their air and missile defense, get longer-range weapons, and increase their rear-area attack capabilities.

Neither Ukraine nor the world can afford the luxury of a protracted or postponed conflict. While Russia cannot obviously win this war on the battlefield, Ukraine’s victory is possible. Yet it is not irreversible, as the Kremlin is still strong enough to maintain its terror on Ukrainian cities, continue killing civilians, and disrupt international supply chains. Zelenskyy’s key message was clear: the only force that can put an end to the Russian war on global peace and security is Ukrainian patriots. But to succeed in defending global freedoms, they must be backed by American “Patriots”—the advanced air-defense system—defending Ukrainian cities.

Rallying the support of the American people and the US Congress remains crucial to ensure the victory of the democratic world. The display of the battle flag from Bakhmut in the US House chamber is a good reminder of where the front line of the global war for democracy runs.

Yevgeniya Gaber is a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council IN TURKEY and was previously a foreign-policy advisor to the prime minister of Ukraine.

Watch Zelenskyy at the White House

Zelenskyy wants more advanced weapons and explicit support for a Ukrainian victory

It looks like Zelenskyy is coming to DC as the Biden administration officially announces that it is—finally—sending advanced Patriot air-defense systems to Ukraine. In light of the massive Russian bombardment of Ukrainian infrastructure designed to make life in the winter intolerable, the Patriots are well worth Zelenskyy’s visit, although the leak last week of the Patriot decision makes this a bit of an anticlimax. The visit gives Zelenskyy and Biden the chance to sit down and talk about the war, and Zelenskyy the opportunity to address Congress and thank the American people for the massive support that has made it possible for Ukraine to withstand the Russian invasion. But Zelenskyy would like the Biden administration to publicly express its support for a Ukrainian victory in this war and to provide the more advanced weapons systems—accurate artillery and missiles with a range up to three hundred kilometers (186 miles), tanks, and fighter jets—that would enable Ukraine to take back all of its territory more quickly. Unfortunately, hesitation in the White House makes that outcome, which would serve American interests, a long shot.

John Herbst is the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Eurasia Center and a former US ambassador to Ukraine.

The visit shows why the US is still the leader of the Free World

While in Washington, Zelenskyy will probably urge intensified US assistance to cope with Russia’s ongoing attacks on Ukraine’s civilian infrastructure and more deliveries of powerful weapons to defend his country, such as air defenses, longer-range accurate artillery and missiles, and possibly tanks and aircraft. The omnibus spending bill that Congress is considering and may pass this week contains nearly $45 billion of additional assistance, and Zelenskyy may hope that his address can help get that assistance over the line.

But he’s also after something more important: Ukrainians look to the United States as the leader of the Free World without irony or mixed feelings. They know that US support—in deed as well as word—has thwarted Putin’s plans of national extermination and given Ukraine a fighting chance to win this war of survival. They didn’t get the memo about supposed US disengagement, decline, or indifference. Zelenskyy is coming to Washington, not to Brussels, Paris, Berlin, or London, because when the chips are down, it’s the United States that has the power to make the difference in matters of war and peace. He knows this as much as Winston Churchill did in 1940, as Adolf Hitler battered Britain.

Like Churchill, Zelenskyy also knows that some in the United States, a few on the left and more on the Donald Trump-aligned right, reject the Biden administration’s commitment to Ukraine and to the Free World generally. Whether they are called neo-isolationists, America-firsters, or “realists,” they are willing, sometimes implicitly and sometimes explicitly, to do a sphere-of-influences deal with Putin that would force Ukraine to surrender people and land to Russia, indifferent to the human and strategic disaster this would mean for Ukrainians and, soon thereafter, for others in Europe and for ourselves, as Putin consolidated such a prize and prepared his next aggression.

Zelenskyy is also coming to warn the United States against bad deals with dictators. He will not just thank the United States and the American people for their support. He will extoll our support for freedom over the past century, seeking to help us recall our best strategic traditions of helping those fighting for their freedom and ours.

Daniel Fried is the Weiser Family distinguished fellow at the Atlantic Council and a former US ambassador to Poland.

An attempt to ‘defuse the problem’ at the White House

Zelenskyy is taking a much-deserved victory lap in Washington today and is here to rally Congress to do more. Zelenskyy is not only commander in chief, he’s also communicator in chief. With his pitch-perfect performance and gravelly voice, there’s no one more convincing in Kyiv than the Ukrainian president. He’s also coming to defuse the problem at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. The White House remains convinced that Ukraine can’t win and that sending long-range missiles and planes would escalate the conflict. Zelenskyy is coming to change minds and burst the myth of these self-created limitations. He’s also coming to rally the world to give more and do more for Ukraine during the holiday season. His visit underscores the physical courage, conviction, and gravitas he has become known for around the world—the opposite of Vladimir Putin—since the war began. 

Melinda Haring is the deputy director of the Eurasia Center.

A courageous Zelenskyy arrives at a pivotal moment in the war 

In the foreign affairs community, a first visit is very symbolic. The full-scale war marked a new era in Ukraine, so the fact Zelenskyy’s first visit after February 24 is to the United States underlines the decisive US role in Ukraine’s resistance. The United States is a crucial ally of Ukraine; it is a driver of the Ramstein format for international defense cooperation, provides most of the essential military assistance, supplies economic help, and deters Russian nuclear threats.

Until now, all post-February communication between US and Ukrainian leaders has been via calls and virtual meetings. That communication cannot replace in-person meetings. Thus, the visit had to occur at the earliest convenience, which was very difficult from a security perspective. Traveling around Ukraine and now abroad, Zelenskyy is showing he is ahead of Russia. He is demonstrating his commitment to personal presence, involvement, and initiative. The fact that Zelenskyy is making this trip, and his earlier trip to Bakhmut (perhaps the most dangerous place on our planet today), speaks to his courage.

The trip is necessary after the US midterm elections and just before Christmas. As the world enters a new year, US and Ukrainian leaders will outline their essential plans for 2023. Next year will be crucial for this war with the right amount of support. It may mark the war’s end, with Ukraine able to push Russian occupants out of its territory. It will also be a year of commencing legal trials against Putin and his government and claiming damages. Thus, next year’s events may seriously damage and even end Putin’s regime. Today Putin’s plans are not working out, his troops have retreated from over half of the initially occupied territory, and he is desperate. To recover the lost initiative, he is planning a new mobilization and another offensive in the first quarter of 2023. That makes it critical for Ukraine to secure the right amount of military assistance. 

Andriy Zagorodnyuk is a distinguished fellow at the Eurasia Center and a former minister of defense of Ukraine.

A plan to consolidate US support for a long struggle

Zelenskyy’s decision to visit the United States on what is his first wartime trip abroad highlights the critical importance of continued US support for the Ukrainian war effort. Following a relatively favorable outcome during the recent US midterm elections, there are no major concerns in Kyiv over the strength of the United States’ commitment to Ukraine. Nevertheless, there is an eagerness to win over skeptics within the Republican Party and consolidate US backing for what promises to be a protracted struggle. 

Zelenskyy is well aware of his own star quality and knows that a personal presence in Washington will resonate with members of Congress and wider US audiences. One of the most important aspects of his wartime leadership has been his ability to rally international support. He is clearly hoping that such a high-profile visit to the United States will succeed in securing the political support Ukraine needs to continue fighting through 2023. 

The visit will also send a powerful message to Ukraine’s other allies and to Russia that the United States stands firmly with Ukraine and will continue to do so in the coming year. This is crucial at a time when the Kremlin hopes to secure a ceasefire in order to rearm and is looking for signs that the West may be ready to compromise. Ukrainian leaders understand the importance of demonstrating to Moscow that such hopes are futile. Nothing could make this clearer than the fanfare of an official visit to the United States.  

Peter Dickinson is the editor of the Atlantic Council’s UkraineAlert section.

A time for Washington to shed its exaggerated fear of escalation

Zelenskyy’s dramatic visit to Washington occurs as the war has entered a crossroads, one that will determine if the war will decisively follow the path of Kyiv’s recent battlefield successes or bog down into a long-term, violent stalemate with immeasurable costs to Ukraine as well as growing economic burdens on the West.

The Biden administration has reportedly approved giving Ukraine Patriot air-defense systems to help defend against Putin’s indiscriminate missile barrages. Zelenskyy will express gratitude for that, but Kyiv also seeks offensive capabilities to push Russian forces off of Ukraine’s territory—tanks, infantry fighting vehicles, aircraft, and longer-range artillery and missiles. All of those are required in short order to bring this war to a just and decisive end.

Toward that end, Zelenskyy will have to convince Washington to shed its exaggerated fear that a swift Ukrainian victory would cause Russia to escalate the war with nuclear weapons. Face-to-face meetings with Biden provide the most direct opportunity to make that case. That and an address to a joint session of Congress provide a global podium through which to immediately increase the US and Western commitment to Ukraine’s battle for survival. 

Ian Brzezinski is a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and previously served as US deputy assistant secretary of defense for Europe and NATO policy.

Ukraine wants to be able to shoot the archer, not just the arrows

Zelenskyy’s surprise visit to Washington comes with huge risks and opportunities. Zelenskyy is the Winston Churchill of our time, and his personal wartime leadership has been an essential ingredient to Ukraine’s successful defense in the face of Putin’s war of aggression. Coming to Washington entails operational dangers to his personal safety; getting him in and out of Kyiv unharmed will be no easy task. And there are huge risks to Ukraine’s wartime effort if anything were to go wrong. It is doubtful that a successor would be nearly as charismatic or effective. 

But the visit also brings huge potential opportunity. US aid and arms have been the other essential ingredient to Ukraine’s wartime success, and he hopes to get more of both with an in-person appeal to the US president, Congress, and people. With a planned prime-time address, Zelenskyy will attempt to persuade the American public and a new Congress that they benefit from supporting Ukraine. At the White House, Zelenskyy will attempt to convince Biden that he should lift arbitrary restrictions on weapons sales and give Kyiv the weapons it needs to shoot the archer, not just the arrows. 

It should be a straightforward case to make. The United States’ greatest national security challenge is that, for the first time in its history, it faces two near-peer nuclear armed adversaries, Russia and China. By arming Ukraine, the United States can significantly blunt the Russian military threat without risking American lives. Here is hoping Zelenskyy’s trip, and the Ukrainian war effort, succeed. 

Matthew Kroenig is the acting director of the Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security, and a former US Department of Defense and intelligence community official.

Further reading

Related Experts: John E. Herbst, Melinda Haring, Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Peter Dickinson, Daniel Fried, Ian Brzezinski, and Matthew Kroenig

Image: President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine with Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) after addressing a joint meeting of Congress at the Capitol on December 21, 2022. The Ukrainian President visited Washington to meet with Biden and US lawmakers during his first trip outside his country since Russia began its violent invasion of Ukraine in February.News President Volodymry Zelenskyy Of Ukraine Addresses Congress During Visit To Us