Volodymyr Zelensky surprises Joe Biden with medal at White House meeting as US pledges new air defence system

Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky surprised Joe Biden with a medal at a White House meeting as he thanked him for military support on his first overseas trip since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Wearing his trademark olive green trousers and jumper, Mr Zelensky was greeted by Mr Biden and his wife Dr Jill Biden on the White House lawn, with the US president putting his arm around his political ally.

After sitting down in the Oval Office, Mr Zelensky surprised Mr Biden by presenting him with a Ukrainian military captain’s war cross medal, which a soldier in Bahmut had asked be delivered to the US president as a symbol of gratitude. Mr Biden remarked that it was “undeserved but appreciated” and promised to reciprocate with a US military command coin for the soldier.

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Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky gives a medal to US President Joe Biden (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty)
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky gives a medal to US President Joe Biden (Photo: BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty)

Speaking in English, his third language, Mr Zelensky expressed appreciation “from my heart, from all Ukrainians, to you for your big support and leadership. Many countries are helping now, but that is your leadership, thank you”.

“It’s an honour to be by your side in the defence what is a brutal war waged by Putin,” Mr Biden said, adding that Ukraine’s resilience has “inspired the world”.

Mr Zelensky is expected to appeal for “weapons, weapons and more weapons” in an address to Congress expected later on Wednesday following the behind-closed-doors discussions with Mr Biden and joint press conference.

Before Mr Zelensky’s plane landed, the US announced another $1.85 billion in military aid including a Patriot air defence system “capable of bringing down cruise missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, and aircraft” high in the air above Ukraine.

At a joint press conference, Mr Biden said: “I don’t think there’s any substitute for sitting down face to face, with a friend or foe, and looking them in the eye. This guy is who he says he is. He’s willing to give his life for his country, and everyone who came with him today, and it’s important for him to know we are going to do everything in our power to ensure he succeeds.”

He said the Patriot battery would be a “critical asset” for Ukraine to defend against “Russian aggression”.

The president also promised a further $374 million in humanitarian assistance to “provide food and healthcare in Ukraine” – bringing the total amount of new funding to $2.2 billion.

Mr Zelensky said the package was “good news” that further cements Ukraine and the US as “real partners”.

He said: “The strongest element of this new package is the Patriot battery system, something that will strengthen our air defence significantly. This is a very important step to create a secure air space for Ukraine. That’s the only way we can deprive the terrorists (Russia) of their ability to attack our energy sector, our people and our infrastructure.”

President Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelenskiy walk down the Colonnade to the Oval Office at the White House (Photo: Leah Millis/Reuters)
President Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelensky walk down the Colonnade to the Oval Office at the White House (Photo: Leah Millis/Reuters)

The trip comes at a pivotal time in US politics, two years ahead of the 2024 presidential election. Ukraine may be a factor in the race as figures on the right of the Republican Party are becoming increasingly vocal in criticising the huge amounts of military and humanitarian aid being poured into Ukraine. Mr Biden, a Democrat, has vowed not to waver and to support Ukraine “as long as it takes”.

Mr Biden made clear: “We understand in our bones that Ukraine’s fight is part of something much bigger. The American people know that if we stand by in the face of such blatant attacks on liberty and democracy, and the core principles of sovereignty and territorial integrity, the world would surely face worse consequences as. The American people are prepared to have us stand up to bullies and stand up for freedom.”

Hinting at wavering among Republicans as they take control of the House of Representatives, Mr Zelensky said: “I believe regardless of changes in Congress, I believe there will be bipartisan support, and I know everybody works for this.”

Mr Biden said he was “not at all worried about holding together” the alliance in support of Ukraine internationally.

Of the prospect of peace, he said: “We both want this war to end, and it could end today if Putin had any dignity at all and did the right thing and pulled out, but that’s not going to happen.

“We’re going to help Ukraine succeed on the battlefield, so that if and when President Zelensky is ready to talk to the Russians, he will be able to succeed. We have to put (Mr Zelensky) in a position to be able to decide how he wants the war to end.”

Fresh sanctions on Russia’s Wagner group, an arms-length private mercenary group linked to war crimes in Ukraine and elsewhere, were also announced on Wednesday.

“The Wagner Group is one of the most notorious mercenary organizations in the world and is actively committing atrocities and human rights abuses across Ukraine,” said US under-secretary of commerce Alan Estevez. “Today we are sending a clear message to non-state actors seeking to pick up the baton of brutality from Putin’s faltering military that the Department of Commerce will not hesitate to act against them.”

Its forces are known to be fighting in parts of Ukraine, including during a brutal, long-running battle for the small city of Bakhmut.

Joe Biden welcomes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the White House (Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP)
Joe Biden welcomes Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the White House (Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP)

Zelensky aide Mykhailo Podolyak said the visit showed the high degree of trust between the two countries and offered him the opportunity to explain what weapons Kyiv needed.

“This finally puts an end to the attempts by the Russian side… to prove an allegedly growing cooling in our bilateral relations,” Podolyak told Reuters.

“This, of course, is not even close. The United States unequivocally supports Ukraine.”

“It is important to personally explain why we need certain types of weapons,” Podolyak said. “In particular, armoured vehicles, the latest missile defence systems and long-range missiles.”

In a speech on Wednesday, Putin claimed that Russia still sees Ukraine as a “brotherly nation” and that the conflict was a product of “the policy of third countries”.

He said: “For years, we tried to build good-neighbourly relations with Ukraine, offering loans and cheap energy, but it did not work.”

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