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Fast Thinking

December 21, 2022

Zelenskyy gets a Washington embrace. Will he also get more weapons?

By Atlantic Council


It was a hero’s welcome. With an embrace from US President Joe Biden and cascading standing ovations as he spoke to a joint meeting of Congress, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy made the rounds in Washington on Wednesday—his first trip abroad since Russia invaded his country in February. He came armed with a thank you for the billions of dollars in aid and materiel the United States has sent, and a subtle request for more. Will he get the rest of his wish list? Our experts are checking it twice.


White House strategy

  • Zelenskyy’s warm reception on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue and the official announcement that the United States will send Patriot air-defense systems to Ukraine, the most advanced weapon system that Washington has yet to provide, “served as a clear message to Moscow that US investment in Ukraine’s defense will only grow,” John tells us.
  • But then there are what John calls the “ongoing nuances” in the relationship: “The US is still reluctant to provide the longer-range artillery, tanks, and fighter jets that would expedite Ukraine’s victory.” That led to “Biden’s one awkward moment,” John says, when the American president tried “to explain why we would not provide offensive weapons” during a White House press conference, arguing that sending such weapons would risk undermining support for Ukraine among European allies who want to avoid a broader war with Russia.
  • Given that he is in town to improve ties with Biden, Zelenskyy“did not directly challenge” his US counterpart on these points, John notes. “But in his congressional address, he made a low-key pitch for more advanced weapons.”
  • Biden’s continued pledge to support Ukraine for “as long as it takes” was a strong sign, in Melinda’s view, as both presidents “undercut skeptical arguments on the American right” against additional US assistance for Ukraine. Biden’s “deep empathy and support for Ukraine will be his presidential legacy,” she predicts.

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King of the Hill

  • Clad in his typical green army sweatshirt, Zelenskyy—to the surprise of many—delivered his address to Congress in English, despite not being fluent in the language. Melinda said it wasn’t Zelenskyy’s best speech (“blame the speechwriters”) but the arguments 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 that Iran’s provision of drones to Russia for use in Ukraine cannot be overlooked—or Tehran will threaten other allies,” Melinda said. 
  • Melinda notes that “Zelenskyy was at his best when he teased Congress and said Ukrainian soldiers are more than capable of using American tanks and planes.” She also says his blunt statement about the nature of US assistance landed well: “Your money is not charity,” Zelenskyy said. “It is an investment in the global security that we handle in the most responsible and respectful way.”

State of the war

  • So why did Zelenskyy come to DC now? Andriy says that not only is the timing of the US political calendar ideal, with a new Congress to be sworn in next month, but the war is heading into a potentially decisive phase—with Ukraine pushing for legal accountability against Russia along with battlefield wins.
  • Watch for a fresh mobilization and offensive from Vladimir Putin, who has now lost more than half of the Ukrainian territory he initially occupied, in the first quarter of 2023, Andriy advises. “That makes it critical for Ukraine to secure the right amount of military assistance.” 
  • If all goes right, Andriy adds, “next year’s events may seriously damage and even end Putin’s regime.”
  • “Many commentators are referring to Zelenskyy’s visit as an historic one,” John notes. “That is true only if Ukraine wins this war.” 

Further reading

Related Experts: John E. Herbst, Melinda Haring, and Andriy Zagorodnyuk

Image: President Biden welcomes President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine on the South Lawn of the White House December 21, 2022. The Ukrainian President visited Washington to meet with Biden and US lawmakers. President Zelenskyy will also address a joint meeting of Congress at the Capitol during his first trip outside his country since Russia began its violent invasion of Ukraine in February.Xxx 2jm7268 Dcb Jpg A Oth Usa Dc