Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has addressed several parliaments around the world since the Russian invasion began on February 24. However, he had never spoken to any of them in person – he has always beamed in via videolink. That changed on Wednesday night in Washington, almost 10 months after he became a wartime leader.
Before a special session of the US Congress, Zelenskiy peppered his address with several references to heroic episodes in American history, such as the War of Independence and President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s entry into World War II.
Zelenskiy – speaking from the well of the House of Representatives – emphasized that the battle his armed forces are waging, in the heart of Europe, is crucial for the future of democracy. For this reason, he explained, his troops need “all possible help,” both economically and militarily.
“We are in a position to change the course of the war,” he said. “Your money is not charity – it is an investment in global security that we will manage in the most responsible way.”
Dressed down in his usual green outfit, Zelenskiy was greeted by four minutes of cheers and applause by both Democratic and Republican representatives and senators. He opened his speech with the words “dear Americans” – making it clear that he was also addressing the citizens of the United States, who – whether they like it or not – are funding the defense of Ukraine with their tax dollars.
“Against all odds, Ukraine did not fall. It is alive and kicking,” he proclaimed, after an intense day in Washington, during which he met with President Joe Biden at the White House.
“We defeated Russia. We are not afraid. No one should have to be,” the Ukrainian president continued. “This victory will serve to inspire the global community. It is also a triumph for the Americans. Europe is more united and freer than ever. Russian tyranny has lost its grip on us. And Russian citizens will be free, too, but only when they defeat the Kremlin.”
His appearance came as Congress is considering an omnibus spending bill that will provide, among other things, at least $45 billion in aid to Ukraine. He applied pressure to guarantee a refreshed supply of tanks, missiles and other military equipment, clearly concerned that some Republican and Democratic lawmakers are not keen on continuing to write a blank check to Ukraine.
“We have artillery, yes, thank you. Is it enough? Honestly, no,” Zelenskiy said.
Zelenskiy – who was an actor before becoming president – made a symbolic gesture for effect about 20 minutes into his speech, when he took out the flag of his country. The fabric was covered in the signatures of several Ukrainian soldiers, who signed their names just two days ago in the Donetsk region in eastern Ukraine, where the toughest fighting is currently taking place against the Russian Army. Zelenskiy presented it to Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Both women flanked the Ukrainian president during the entirety of his speech.
After taking a train to the Polish border, Zelenskiy boarded a plane to Washington, DC, landing at noon EST. He met with Biden for two hours in the Oval Office, where the American president said that his country would support Ukraine’s war effort “for as long as necessary.” He also promised to give Zelenskiy what he has been asking for since the start of the invasion: a Patriot missile system. Following this meeting, the two leaders attended a press conference in the East Wing of the White House.
Pelosi led the joint session of Congress, in what will surely be her last major appearance before leaving office next month. She was speaker of the House between 2007 and 2011, and again since 2019 – the first woman to have ever been elected to the post. After the Republican Party won control of the lower legislative chamber in the 2022 midterm elections, California Republican Kevin McCarthy will be replacing Pelosi in January.
Despite the best efforts of the outgoing speaker, the House floor was not quite full during Zelenskiy’s address. It is Christmas week in Washington – many legislators have already left the city and flown back to their districts, or overseas for vacation. The Ukrainian president’s visit – which was planned in secret and reported to the press on Tuesday night – took the congresspeople and senators by surprise. In addition to that, a series of winter storms caused the cancellation of many domestic flights in the Northeastern United States.
After the speech ended, Democratic Senator Chuck Schumer – the majority leader in the Senate – spoke to reporters. He warned that if Congress did not approve the pending aid package to Ukraine, “it would mean losing the war.” Meanwhile, Mitch McConnell – the Republican minority leader in the Senate – told the media that “the most important thing in the world right now is to defeat Russia.” However, not everyone in his party agrees. Several members of the Republican Party prefer to focus on domestic issues, especially since, over the last 10 months, the American government has already approved $65 billion in military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
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