Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy will meet with President Joe Biden and deliver an address to both chambers of Congress during a visit to Washington on Wednesday, his first known trip outside the country since Russia invaded 10 months ago.
The visit comes at a crucial moment in the conflict, as winter weather slows progress on the ground after a flurry of Ukrainian successes and as Republicans prepare to take control of the House. While Kyiv pushes for greater military aid from its Western allies, the slight GOP majority soon to take control in January has signaled it may tighten the purse strings of support for Ukraine.
Zelenskyy said in a tweet early Wednesday that he was traveling to the U.S. "to strengthen resilience and defense capabilities" of his country.
NBC News previously reported on the anticipated visit, which comes as the current lame-duck session of Congress appears poised to approve additional aid to reinforce Ukraine’s efforts in its war with Russia, which has now stretched past 300 days.
In a statement Tuesday night, White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said Zelenskyy's time in D.C. "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."
Zelenskyy was scheduled to meet with Biden at the White House in the afternoon before the pair hold a news conference in the East Room.
In a call with reporters Tuesday night, a senior administration official detailed a program that was also expected to include meetings with key members of Biden's national security team and Cabinet.
The official said Zelenskyy will also travel to Capitol Hill, where lawmakers are expected to be voting on a massive funding bill that includes roughly $44.9 billion in Ukraine aid. He is expected to cap off the day with a formal speech to a joint session of Congress, the official said.
Biden and Zelenskyy had discussed details of the visit for more than a week, with Biden extending an invitation to Zelenskyy to visit the White House last Wednesday, the official said. The visit, Zelenskyy's first known trip outside Ukraine since the start of the war in February, was formally confirmed Sunday.
The administration official described the visit as a chance to provide an “important injection of momentum and sustenance” to U.S. and allied support of Ukraine as its war with Russia rages on.
On Tuesday Zelenskyy made a surprise visit to greet troops on the front lines in Bakhmut, an eastern city that has seen months of intense fighting with Ukrainian forces largely holding out against Russian attacks.
There, Zelenskyy appeared to allude to the trip to Washington before the official announcement. A group of soldiers who helped defend Bakhmut gave him a Ukrainian flag and asked him to get it to Congress — the Ukrainian president promised to give it to Biden himself.
“The guys handed over our beautiful Ukrainian flag with their signatures for us to pass on,” Zelenskyy said, according to The Associated Press. “We are not in an easy situation. The enemy is increasing its army. Our people are braver and need more powerful weapons. We will pass it on from the boys to the Congress, to the president of the United States. We are grateful for their support, but it is not enough."
With the conflict on the ground largely frozen, Russia has waged war from the air — bombarding civilian infrastructure in an effort to leave large parts of the country without electricity through winter.
Ukraine has pushed its allies to bolster its aerial defenses and also warned that the Kremlin might be planning a major new offensive next year.
The visit will coincide with Biden’s announcing a new package of nearly $2 billion of security assistance for Ukraine that will include a Patriot missile battery, the administration official said, adding that U.S. forces would be training Ukrainian forces on how to operate the Patriot missile battery in a third country.
The administration official said the visit would allow Zelenskyy to address Americans and "thank the American people for the incredible support that they’ve received, and thank both parties," for the bipartisan support that Ukraine has received.
Sen. Chris Coons, D-Del., wore a blue and yellow tie in the halls of Congress on Wednesday to match the Ukrainian flag's colors. He said Zelenskyy's visit was a "critical moment" for Congress and the American people to understand how essential its "support is to the success of their fight against Russia."
“President Biden today gets a chance to remind the American people what we’ve accomplished by pulling together our allies throughout the world to stand for freedom," he said.
Coons, who visited Ukraine last month in a show of bipartisan support with Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, noted it would be important for Zelenskyy to offer his thanks to the American people "and to clarify why they’re fighting, what they’re fighting for and what difference it’s going to make.”
American backing for Ukraine continues to remain strong, but it has slipped in recent months — especially among Republicans — according to a Chicago Council on Global Affairs poll conducted last month. Two-thirds of those polled said they supported supplying Ukraine with weapons and economic assistance, but the number of Republicans who support providing aid has dropped from 80% in July to 55%.
Dmitry Peskov, press secretary for Russian President Vladimir Putin, told reporters the Kremlin does not expect any positive changes after Zelenskyy’s visit to Washington. When pressed on whether Moscow expects the situation to worsen after the visit, Peskov said “arms supplies are continuing” and “the range of supplied weapons is expanding.”
“All this, of course, leads to an aggravation of the conflict and, in fact, does not bode well for Ukraine,” he said.