In one of the defining moments from Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington, after delivering a speech to Congress, he turned around to face Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, handed her a flag signed by the soldiers of Bakhmut on the front lines in Donbas and gave her a kiss on the cheek.
The Ukrainian president had just given a searing address to a joint session of Congress to both thank the US for its support and plead for the help to keep coming. After receiving a series of standing ovations, he walked away from the chamber with the American flag that had flown above the Capitol building on Wednesday, a gift from Pelosi.
“We stand, we fight and we will win because we are united,” Zelenskyy said. “Ukraine, America and the entire free world.”
The 44-year-old Ukrainian president was in Washington for just a few hours on Wednesday, from the early afternoon to evening, but the event was monumental because Zelenskyy had not left his country since Russia’s invasion in late February.
Zelenskyy will return home with new commitments from Washington, including Patriot missiles and almost $2bn in new aid. But he seemed aware that the winds in Washington could shift and made an emotional and personal appeal to lawmakers to keep the support flowing.
His first stop was at the White House, where he met US president Joe Biden in the Oval Office. Their relationship had moments of tension in the run-up to the invasion and even afterwards as Zelenskyy has continuously pressed for more aggressive military aid. Their bonhomie on Wednesday appeared genuine, though points of friction remain.
“We will stay with you for as long as it takes. What you’re doing, what you have achieved, it matters not just to Ukraine but to the entire world,” Biden said, after noting to Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, that it was the fourth night of Hanukkah. “Together, I have no doubt we’ll keep the flame of liberty burning bright, and the light will remain and prevail over the darkness.”
While Zelenskyy was on American soil, Biden announced that the US would provide Ukraine with an additional $1.85bn in military assistance, including a battery of Patriot air defence missiles to help it fend off increasingly brutal Russian strikes on targets including critical infrastructure.
The timing was especially crucial because Congress was preparing to vote on an additional $45bn in military, economic and humanitarian aid for Ukraine this week. Not only did Zelenskyy want to help get the legislation over the finish line, he also needed to make the case for why that kind of aid needed to continue after more sceptical Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in January.
“This battle cannot be frozen or postponed. It cannot be ignored,” Zelenskyy said. “This struggle will define in what world our children and grandchildren will live.”
Zelenskyy’s remarks included a vow that Ukraine would “hold its lines and never surrender” and that there could be “no compromises” in ending the war. His appearance evoked comparisons to an address to members of Congress by UK prime minister Winston Churchill during the second world war in 1941. Pelosi noted that her father was a member of Congress at the time and attended Churchill’s speech.
Democrats applauded most enthusiastically for the Ukrainian president. Some even wore attire in blue and yellow, Ukraine’s national colours.
Throughout his appearances, Zelenskyy invoked the suffering of ordinary Ukrainian people and families disrupted or separated by the war, including those who had lost loved ones in the fighting. As many Americans were preparing to celebrate Christmas, he asked them to think of Ukrainians who would probably do so by candlelight.
“Not because it’s more romantic, no, but because there will be no electricity. Millions won’t have neither heating, no running water. All of this will be the result of Russian missile and drone attacks on our energy infrastructure. But we do not complain,” Zelenskyy said.
After the speech, just outside the House floor, Abigail Spanberger, a Democratic lawmaker from Virginia, said Zelenskyy’s direct appeals to Americans — including references to US battles for freedom and the “visualisation” of what Ukrainians were enduring — were “really valuable”.
She added that the Ukrainian president had proven that his country deserved additional aid. “They’ve exceeded all expectations or thoughts of where this war might go,” she said, “and I think that they have demonstrated that every bit of support we give them in this fight, they utilise it as optimally as they possibly can.”
Andy Barr, a Republican from Kentucky, was effusive. “Volodymyr Zelenskyy has inspired his countrymen to fight, as he said tonight, ‘against all odds,’ in defiance of tyranny and in defence of freedom. In so doing, he has also inspired and rallied all who stand in support of freedom — in the United States, in Europe and around the world,” he said in a statement to the Financial Times. “The cause of the Ukrainian people is the cause of freedom, and since 1776, it has been our cause as well.”
Some Republicans, however, did not show up, including lawmakers close to former president Donald Trump such as Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. Ralph Norman, a House member from South Carolina, said Zelenskyy’s words would not change his opposition to additional spending for Ukraine and decided not to attend.
Donald Trump Jr, the former president’s son, mocked Zelenskyy on Twitter, saying he was “basically an ungrateful international welfare queen”.
Other pro-Trump lawmakers did turn up, including Matt Gaetz of Florida and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, who sometimes sat silent while their colleagues cheered. Kevin McCarthy, the Republican leader in the House, said Zelenskyy’s speech was “good” even though he would not give Ukraine a “blank cheque”.
Natalie Jaresko, the former finance minister of Ukraine who joined a group of Ukrainian-Americans in the House gallery to watch the speech and occasionally chanted “slava Ukraini” — “glory to Ukraine” — said it had been crucial for Zelenskyy to make a direct connection with US lawmakers.
“I think after 300 days of war, and in particular, after the last two months of really heavy, heavy bombings, it’s more important than ever for him to make personal contact with Congress to assure them that he is grateful, the Ukrainian people are extraordinarily grateful, but that their support is continuing to become ever more important,” she said.