President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s highly choreographed visit to Washington was a significant international moment. Not long ago, Mr. Zelenskyy had been adamant that his place was always on the frontline with his people. This week, however, he made a lightning trip in person, via Poland, to Washington itself, meeting President Joe Biden at the White House and delivering a primetime address to the U.S. Congress before heading back into his suffering country less than 24 hours later.
The visit was much more than a Christmas celebration of Ukraine’s defiance and of Mr. Zelenskyy’s immense role in it. Instead, it was a political event with important future implications for Ukraine, the United States and Russia, and for the conflict more generally. It was clearly focused on what should happen in 2023 rather than what has happened already.
Mr. Zelenskyy had three principal objectives. The first was to rally American and, by extension, global support. The second was to intervene at a pivotal moment in the war and in U.S. politics to advance that effort. The third was to make an ambitious pitch for even more financial and military support from the only state that is in a position to supply it, and thus to strengthen Ukraine’s resistance during a bitter winter, with the prospect of fresh fighting in the spring.
In public, Mr. Zelenskyy produced another media-savvy performance, especially in his address to Congress. He spent every hour in Washington in his iconic olive-green fatigues, and emphasized the immediacy of his cause by presenting Congress with a battlefield Ukrainian flag that he had collected from soldiers on the frontline in Bakhmut on Tuesday. He skillfully mixed gratitude with fresh requests for support. U.S. aid and support was not charity, he insisted, but an investment in the “global security and democracy” for which the U.S. and its allies stand.
It is clear that the Biden administration agrees with that. The deeper questions of the visit, however, are how urgently Washington wants that investment to bear fruit and what price it is willing to pay. Weapons and money are the twin keys to the answer. Mr. Biden and his aides will have assured Mr. Zelenskyy that the U.S. wants Russia to be defeated in Ukraine. But they will also have told him that they do not want a wider conflict and that they may have a different definition of what defeat could look like.
The toughest arguments behind closed doors will have focused on Ukraine’s demands for more and better weaponry, and on the terms to be set for ending the conflict. At home, though, finance is an even bigger political issue for Mr. Biden. The U.S. has already spent more than $48bn on humanitarian, financial and military support; another $2bn in military aid was announced during the visit. The administration also aims to get another aid package, worth almost $45bn, through Congress before the Republicans take over the House of Representatives in January.
The US domestic political question is whether bipartisan support continues in January. Mr. Zelenskyy’s visit was in large part directed towards ensuring that it does. But the real issues this week will have been military and strategic. Russia is preparing a fresh ground assault, perhaps during winter. Another Ukrainian counterattack is expected too. Mr. Zelenskyy is the hero of the hour. But Washington is increasingly looking towards an endgame in 2023. The end of the conflict is increasingly in the US’s hands, not just those of Russia and Ukraine.
Some on both sides of the Atlantic made the comparison between Mr. Zelenskyy’s wartime flight from Kyiv this week and Winston Churchill’s visit to Washington after Pearl Harbor in 1941. For that comparison to be intellectually useful rather than merely sentimental, it is important to remember that Churchill’s visit marked the moment in the second world war when the U.S. began to take charge of the allied cause in Europe. The same thing may be true this time over Ukraine.
– The Guardian, Dec. 22, 2022
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