In his first trip outside his war-torn country since Russia invaded almost a year ago, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pleaded with the U.S. Congress for the survival of his people and warned that only a combination of “Ukrainian courage and American resolve” can defend global democracy.
“Your money is not charity. It is an investment in global security and democracy that we handle in the most responsible way,” he said. “Let the world see that the United States is here.”
Addressing an extraordinary joint meeting of Congress on Thursday, Zelenskyy made a hard sell to lawmakers as Republicans prepare to take control of the House, where aid to Ukraine may now face more scrutiny and opposition.
“Your decisions can save millions of people," he told the senators and representatives who hold the purse strings to the world's largest economy and its most powerful military.
Zelenskyy was hailed as a hero, entering the House chamber Wednesday evening to thunderous and lengthy applause, as lawmakers of both parties rose to their feet while some unfurled a large blue and yellow Ukrainian flag.
"It's too much," he said self-deprecatingly in heavily accented but clear English.
Wearing his now-famous army green sweater, Zelenskyy stood at the lectern in front of outgoing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Vice President Kamala Harris, in her capacity as president of the Senate, and appeared to choke up as he looked out at the cheering lawmakers.
"Ukraine is alive and kicking," he said. "Ukraine holds its lines and will never surrender."
In the visitor gallery overlooking the House floor, members of the Ukrainian diaspora cheered “Slava Ukrainia! Ukrainia Slava!” — “Glory to Ukraine" — as Zelenskyy and Pelosi exchanged their national flags.
It was a dramatic moment for Zelenskyy, the comedian-turned-wartime leader, and a turnaround for his country, which he rallied for a fight that most assumed was hopeless.
When Russia was preparing to invade in February, some U.S. officials urged Zelenskyy to flee Kyiv and set up a government-in-exile, assuming Russian forces would overwhelm the country in a matter of days.
Zelenskyy has not left Ukraine since the invasion began, and it was no accident that he chose Washington as the destination for this risky trip.
Ukraine has been dependent on billions in U.S. and European aid and weaponry, which has helped it hold its own against its much more powerful foe.
“I hope my words of respect and gratitude resonate in each American heart,” Zelenskyy said.
Zelenskyy met earlier with President Joe Biden, who pledged "unequivocal and unbending support" for "as long as it takes."
Zelenskyy told Congress the war is far from over and warned that if Washington does not help Kyiv stop Moscow now, his country will not be the only one that suffers.
“It’s just a matter of time before they strike against your other allies," Zelenskyy said, repeatedly referring to the Russians as "terrorists" and noting that Russian forces are using drones made in Iran.
Zelenskyy compared his country's struggles and hopes to America's own, referring to famous military events in U.S. history, from the Revolutionary War battle at Saratoga to World War II's Battle of the Bulge.
The visit comes at a crucial moment in Ukraine’s fight with Russia, which has begun to target civilian infrastructure as temperatures plunge for the winter, leaving millions cold and without power.
“We’ll celebrate Christmas even without electricity — the light of our faith and ourselves will not be put out," he said. "We will still sit down at the holiday table, and we don’t have to know each other’s wish — it is all the same for Ukrainians: victory."
Zelenskyy and Biden said at the White House that they are confident the bipartisan support for U.S. aid to Ukraine will continue after the new Congress convenes early next month. Most Republican leaders say they want the same.
But some GOP lawmakers and other conservative voices say the billions of dollars' worth of aid to Kyiv could be better spent in other ways, while others argue Washington should not be so involved in trying to tip the scales against Moscow.
During Zelenskyy's speech, a few House Republicans toward the back of the room did not stand up when the rest of the chamber did, although they eventually started standing toward the end of the speech. They included Matt Gaetz of Florida and Lauren Boebert of Colorado.
Earlier, Donald Trump Jr., the eldest son of and adviser to the former president, called Zelenskyy "basically an ungrateful international welfare queen" on Twitter hours before he landed in Washington.
Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., who has become an ally of GOP leader Kevin McCarthy of California as he tries to secure votes from the right wing of his caucus to be elected the next speaker, said at a Trump rally in Iowa last month that "under Republicans, not another penny will go to Ukraine."
McCarthy has said Republicans will continue to support Ukraine, but he has said there will be no "blank check" for Kyiv.
Zelenskyy's address was organized by Pelosi and fellow Democrat Chuck Schumer of New York, who is expected to continue to lead the Senate as majority leader because Democrats kept their majority in the November election.