Zelensky’s secretive, historic US visit exploits a crucial window of opportunity for Ukraine

Before President Volodymyr Zelensky departed Ukraine en route to Washington DC on Wednesday, members of his inner circle told reporters there was frustration in Kyiv that news of his visit to the US capital had leaked.

But with hindsight, it’s remarkable that the White House and the Ukrainians managed to keep the lid on the trip at all. Finalised only last weekend, there were several clues that something dramatic was up: US Defence Secretary, Lloyd Austin, made unannounced visits to Congress on Monday for closed-door meetings with Democrat and Republican leaders.

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On Tuesday morning, outgoing House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, sent a cryptic letter to members of the legislature, urging them to be ready to attend an in-person meeting on Wednesday night that would entail “a very special focus on democracy”.

Members of the Washington press corps, once again realising that there will be no slow fade to Christmas in the city this year, were quick to conclude that a big name guest was going to beat Santa in the race to ride into town.

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For Mr Zelensky, the trip is high-stakes: it’s the first time he is known to have left Ukrainian soil since February, when Russia’s relentless war against his nation began. His travel brings all the attendant security risks that his movement across oceans entails. For Mr Biden, the Ukrainian leader’s visit is a remarkable end-of-year coup that underscores just how dramatically the US President’s fortunes – both domestic and international – have improved throughout the year.

FILE - Patriot missiles are seen at the Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport, March 25, 2022, in Jasionka, Poland. The U.S. will send $1.8 billion in military aid to Ukraine in a massive package that will for the first time include a Patriot missile battery and precision guided bombs for their fighter jets, U.S. officials said Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022, as the Biden administration prepares to welcome Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy to Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci, File)
Patriot missiles at the Rzeszow-Jasionka airport in Poland earlier this year. The US will finally provide Ukraine with a Patriot missile battery – something Kyiv has been seeking for a while (Photo: Evan Vucci/AP)

The visit’s timing, though, is not coincidental and represents far more than a victory lap. It comes as the sands of time expire on the Democrats’ control of the House of Representatives, with Republicans set to enjoy a slim majority in the legislature beginning on 3 January.

Politically, the White House decision to welcome Mr Zelensky to Washington on the 300th day of Russia’s war is an effort to cement ties with Kyiv ahead of that transfer of power on Capitol Hill. As Mr Zelensky’s plane touched down, Secretary of State Antony Blinken unveiled a new assistance package for Ukraine worth nearly $2bn, including the Patriot missile defence system that Mr Zelensky has demanded for months. The last week has witnessed fevered activity at the Pentagon and the State Department to lay the ground for those shipments finally to be made.

Mr Biden is expected to use the presidency’s bully pulpit to talk in sweeping, historic terms about the nature of the US alliance with Ukraine. He’ll then provide Mr Zelensky with an opportunity to use his own force of personality to woo lawmakers on Capitol Hill. In many ways, tonight’s address to a joint session of Congress is expected to prove the key moment of this visit, with a wartime leader often compared to Churchill being given access to the well of Congress in order to make his own case for continued US support as Russia gears up for a much-anticipated spring offensive.

Some members of Congress are likely to remain unmoved. Members of the pro-Putin wing of the Republican caucus are already vowing to halt all future financial expenditure on Ukraine, with calls for the appointment of an inspector general to audit the money Mr Biden has already spent on the battlefield.

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On Tuesday night, the mere whiff of fresh assistance for Kyiv led Republican right-winger Lauren Boebert of Colorado to tweet that “our government wants to send yet another $47 billion to Ukraine. Yes, really”. Along with many of her colleagues, she accuses the Biden White House of caring more about Ukraine’s border with Russia than about illegal immigration across America’s border with its neighbours to the south.

Mr Zelensky is expected to make fresh demands during a visit to Washington that may last fewer than seven hours. He’ll want logistical bottlenecks overcome in a bid to speed international assistance to his forces. In an act that is sure to garner front-page attention, he delivered into Mr Biden’s hands a Ukrainian medal that fighters in the eastern battlefront of Bakhmut handed to him only on Tuesday.

As he heads back to Kyiv, the lasting impact of the visit may be determined by what – if anything – the Ukrainian leader says about his willingness to enter into negotiations with the Russians. Earlier this month, President Biden – flanked by French President, Emmanual Macron, – said that he would be willing to meet Russian President, Vladimir Putin, face-to-face if a negotiated settlement becomes possible. Behind the scenes in the Oval Office, and then in front of the cameras during a joint press conference, the question of how the war ends is likely to loom large.

Sensing that, the Russian foreign ministry said on Wednesday that “nothing good” will come of Mr Zelensky’s visit to Washington and that the Kremlin currently sees no chance of peace talks. Continued Western arms supplies, said a Russian government spokesman, “will only succeed in aggravating the conflict”. None of that seems to be giving Mr Biden any pause in his determination to roll out the red carpet for his guest, and send Mr Zelensky home with early Christmas presents designed further to shore up Ukraine’s forces.

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