Volodymyr Zelenskyy to meet Joe Biden in Washington

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Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelenskyy will visit Washington on Wednesday, the White House said, in his first trip out of the country since Russia invaded.

Zelenskyy will first visit the White House, where he will meet US president Joe Biden and members of his national security team. Biden will announce nearly $2bn in new security assistance, including the Patriot missile defence system that Kyiv requested as Russia stepped up attacks on energy infrastructure.

Zelenskyy will then participate in a joint session of Congress before he heads back to Ukraine, wrapping up a short and high-stakes visit that was shrouded in secrecy owing to security concerns.

“The visit will underscore the United States’ steadfast commitment to supporting Ukraine for as long as it takes, including through the provision of economic, humanitarian, and military assistance,” White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said in a statement.

His visit comes as lawmakers vote this week on an annual $1.7tn spending bill that includes nearly $45bn in assistance for the war-torn country.

Ukraine’s president had been looking for an opportunity to travel to Washington since the summer, according to officials close to him, who said security was the biggest issue standing in the way.

Biden and Zelenskyy discussed a possible visit when they spoke on the phone on December 11, and the White House followed up with a formal invitation last Wednesday. Zelenskyy’s team confirmed on Sunday that he would come, a senior Biden administration official said.

Kyiv officials said Zelenskyy would want to tie any visit to a major request for lethal aid, such as the Patriot system, from the Biden administration.

Washington will train Ukrainian forces on how to use the Patriot missile battery in a third country, and American troops will not be in Ukraine to assist with its operation, the senior administration official said, adding that it would “take some time” to instruct troops before the system could be used.

During a visit to Bakhmut in eastern Ukraine on Tuesday, Ukrainian troops gave Zelenskyy a national flag they had signed to pass on to the US Congress for their support.

A source close to the president’s office said Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, would not join Zelenskyy on the trip.

The visit comes after the top Republican in the House of Representatives, Kevin McCarthy, said it would become more difficult to pass additional assistance to Ukraine next year when his party took control of the House.

Asked whether Zelenskyy’s visit was meant to send a message to congressional Republicans, the senior Biden official said the administration was confident it would maintain bipartisan support for the effort.

“This isn’t about sending a message to a particular political party. This is about sending a message to Putin and sending a message to the world that America will be there for Ukraine for as long as it takes,” the official said.

Still, Zelenskyy’s visit could put additional pressure on House Republicans who intend to vote against the omnibus spending bill. It is expected to pass regardless, with support from House Democrats as well as bipartisan backing in the Senate.

Biden has said he would speak with Vladimir Putin if Russia’s leader expressed a willingness to end the war, but officials on Tuesday said Putin had shown no interest in doing so.

US officials have debated the best timing and conditions for Ukraine and Russia to speak. Wednesday’s visit will aim to demonstrate Washington’s longstanding commitment to Ukraine as it faces a tough winter and beyond.

The senior administration official said: “The president is not coming with a message that is about pushing or prodding or poking Zelenskyy in any way. This is going to be a message of solidarity and support, co-ordination and alignment and making sure that we are very much putting Ukraine in the best possible position and its interests and secure its objectives.”

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