When a U.S. army jet arrived in Rzeszow, Poland on Tuesday, the personnel expected to pick up the U.S. envoy to Ukraine and other Ukrainian officials.
They didn’t even know one of the diplomats was Ukraine’s leader, Volodymyr Zelensky, until they witnessed him depart a U.S. vehicle.
With American aid, he just accomplished a risky journey from Bakhmut, the center of some of the conflict’s deadliest fighting, to the Polish frontier for a secretly planned trip to Washington.
I thank @POTUS for the warm welcome and I deeply appreciate all the support of the U.S. and the American people. I am confident that together we will be able to secure a better, prosperous and free future for both of our nations. Ukraine’s victory will also be America’s victory. pic.twitter.com/OhclRtwIJy
— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) December 22, 2022
Primary-secret preparation behind Zelensky’s departure emphasized the risky nature of a trip by a wartime president who faces daily dangers to his life; a major Russian aim is to eradicate the government he leads.
Given the high stakes, he and President Biden wanted to meet in person; he was ready to leave his nation for the very first occasion since the Russian incursion in February.
Only a few White House and administration officials knew about the trip’s intentions. U.S. officials said a significant portion of contact with Zelensky’s staff occurred in person, with Ambassador Bridget Brink convening with Zelensky staffers in Kyiv.
Three days before Zelensky’s arrival, the White House contacted a limited number of congressional leaders, notably House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, so they could plan for him to address a bilateral meeting of Congress over his 9.5 hours in the U.S.
Zelensky told Biden and legislators on Wednesday that Ukraine can win the conflict, a claim some U.S. authorities privately agree is doubtful. His visit also served as an effort to build up support among hesitant politicians and other Americans before a tough winter of battle.
Zelensky told Biden for months that he wanted to visit the U.S., but the situation in Ukraine made it practically unattainable until now.
More US Commitments
A Dec. 11 phone conversation between the two leaders was the last spark. Biden informed Zelensky he had excellent news.
He asked the Pentagon to make Ukraine’s air defense a priority. It now also seemed probable that the U.S. would send Kyiv a Patriot missile unit. This is Zelensky’s top priority for months to guard against Russian assaults on civilian infrastructure.
Zelensky is apparently prepared to tell Congress that whatever the US has given Ukraine — $45 billion in new aid now under consideration — it is not enough. From @AP: https://t.co/kbyyqF5t5X pic.twitter.com/5BkSu9Dsaj
— Byron York (@ByronYork) December 21, 2022
Biden told Zelensky in the conversation that the White House sought $37 billion in additional money for Ukraine and had “good indications” from Congress. As part of a year-end budget package, lawmakers want to approve $45 billion for Ukraine within days.
The story of the Patriot cruise missile — the most sophisticated air defense tactic in the American arsenal — seemed to encourage Zelensky to make the trip rapidly, a White House official said.
He saw it as a way of thanking Biden, Congress, and the American public while strengthening U.S. support in front of a long winter of battle.
Zelensky has used communications and his reputation as a tenacious leader to push his country’s cause from the war’s start.