Ukraine’s Zelenskiy en route to Washington to meet Biden, address Congress


WASHINGTON/KYIV: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is travelling to the United States to meet President Joe Biden and address Congress on Wednesday in his first known overseas trip 300 days after Russia’s invasion of its neighbour.

Zelenskiy said he was going to Washington for talks with Biden to strengthen Ukraine‘s “resilience and defence capabilities” amid repeated Russian attacks on energy and water supplies in the dead of winter.

Biden will announce a package of military assistance for Ukraine valued at nearly $2 billion that will include a Patriot missile battery to help it defend itself against barrages of Russian missiles, a senior US official said.

Zelenskiy’s visit, details of which emerged on Tuesday night, was expected to last several hours.

He will hold talks with Biden and top national security aides at the White House, participate in a joint news conference with Biden and then go to Capitol Hill to address a joint session of the US Senate and House of Representatives.

“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.

Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 with the aim of capturing Kyiv in days, a goal that quickly proved out of reach. Russian President Vladimir Putin casts what he calls Russia’s “special military operation” to “denazify” Ukraine as the moment Moscow finally stood up to the West seeking to capitalize on the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union by destroying Russia.

Thousands of troops and civilians have since been killed, millions have been forced to flee their homes and entire cities have been turned to ruins.

Biden will be face-to-face with the man he has spoken with regularly over the past 10 months but not met in person since the war broke out. With Biden’s support, the West has rallied behind Ukraine and sought to isolate Moscow without getting involved in a direct conflict with Russia.

Biden will not use the talks to push Zelenskiy towards the negotiating table with Putin, the US official said. There are currently no peace talks under way.

The Biden administration has provided about $20 billion in military assistance to Ukraine, including artillery ammunition, munitions for NASAMS air defence systems and for high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS).

Zelenskiy has repeated calls to the West for more weaponry.

‘Fortress bakhmut’

On Tuesday, he made a surprise trip to the eastern frontline city of Bakhmut, his office said, underlining Russia’s stuttering but persistent attempts to capture it.

In his nightly video address, Zelenskiy called it a trip to “Fortress Bakhmut” in Donetsk, a province Russia claimed in September. Most countries reject Russia’s claim as an illegal occupation.

Dressed in combat khaki, Zelenskiy handed out medals to soldiers in a tumble-down industrial complex to applause, video released by his office showed.

In contrast, Putin awarded medals in the comfort of the Kremlin to the Russian-appointed leaders of four regions of Ukraine that Russia claims to have annexed.

Video footage released on Ukrinform TV, part of Ukraine’s state news agency, showed servicemen in Bakhmut handing Zelenskiy a Ukrainian flag with their signatures on it.

“We will turn it over to the Congress and to the US president from the guys,” Zelenskiy said in the video. “We are grateful for the support. But it’s not enough,” he added.

He has urged the troops to keep up their spirits, as the battle for Bakhmut illustrates the grinding brutality of the war.

“The east is holding out because Bakhmut is fighting. In fierce battles and at the cost of many lives, freedom is being defended here for all of us,” Zelenskiy wrote on the Telegram messaging app.

Putin on Tuesday acknowledged problems for Russian forces in parts of Ukraine, including what Russia calls the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in the east.

Ukraine’s Luhansk regional military administration said Russian mining had slowed down Ukrainian forces in the area.

“The most difficult direction along the entire frontline is Bakhmut,” it said on Telegram. “Russians set a goal to win at least some victory there.”

The US Senate has advanced a government-funding bill that includes $44.9 billion in emergency assistance to Ukraine and NATO allies. The money would be used for military training, equipment, logistics and intelligence support, as well as for replenishing US equipment sent to Ukraine.

The World Bank on Tuesday said it had approved an additional financing package for Ukraine totalling $610 million to address urgent relief and recovery needs.

Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal said Ukrainians should prepare for new attacks by Russia on energy infrastructure because it wanted them to spend Christmas and the New Year in darkness.