Volodymyr Zelensky brings his message to Washington

FOR ALMOST ten months after Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24th, Volodymyr Zelensky, Ukraine’s president, did not leave his country. Instead foreign dignitaries came to him. The leaders of Britain, France and Germany, as well as America’s secretaries of state and defence, all made the pilgrimage to the presidential office in Kyiv, where Mr Zelensky had given up his suit and tie for a wardrobe of drab hoodies and, with reluctance, flak jackets. Not until December 21st did Mr Zelensky cross his country’s borders, to travel to the capital of his most important ally. In his few hours in Washington, DC, he met with President Joe Biden, addressed a joint meeting of both chambers of Congress and sought to shore up support from America in an increasingly bitter winter war.

At the White House he received a red-carpet welcome from Mr Biden, who called him a “great leader” and told him Ukrainians continued to “inspire the world”. Mr Biden pledged to keep strengthening Ukraine’s ability to defend itself, particularly its air defence, and announced a further $1.85bn in security assistance for Ukraine. He stressed America would stay with Ukraine “for as long as it takes”. Mr Zelensky, dressed in his olive-green wartime uniform, expressed heartfelt gratitude for American support—and made it clear he would be asking for more.

In Congress, Mr Zelensky was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation (the first of many). His stirring speech did not disappoint. The Ukrainian president spoke in English, and to “all Americans”, to thank them and assure them that Ukraine was “alive and kicking”. He summoned up the spirit of the American revolution and the second world war to express confidence in Ukraine’s “war of independence” and its “absolute victory”. Just the previous day Mr Zelensky had visited the front line at Bakhmut, in the Donbas region, and as a gift to Congress he brought with him a Ukrainian flag, signed by soldiers. In return he was presented with an American flag that had flown over the Capitol on the day of his speech. His hope is that Congress, in the season of goodwill, will provide much more: he described American aid as “an investment in global security” that Ukraine handles “in the most responsible way”.

Ukraine has already received some $50bn in aid this year from America, $23bn of it military and the rest economic and financial. Ukraine’s armed forces rely on American ammunition and armoured vehicles in the field, and on American anti-aircraft missiles to defend their cities from Russian bombardment. With its economy taking a beating, Ukraine’s government depends on help from America and European allies to cover its budget deficit. Congress is scheduled to vote shortly on a further aid package of more than $44bn, planned to carry the country through the course of 2023.

But the timing of Mr Zelensky’s visit may have more to do with the political transition under way after America’s latest legislative election. The House of Representatives will shift from Democratic to Republican control in January. Aid to Ukraine enjoys support from nearly all Democrats and most Republicans, but the GOP includes a vocal minority of far-right isolationists. Kevin McCarthy, a Republican running to become speaker of the House, has said that Ukraine should no longer get a “blank cheque”.

Mr Biden’s new package of American military aid includes kits for turning Ukraine’s unguided bombs into precision-guided ones (known as the Joint Direct Attack Munition, or JDAM). More important, America will for the first time send Ukraine its top-of-the-line Patriot air-defence system, a capability the country has begged for. Patriots would significantly improve Ukraine’s ability to shoot down the cruise missiles with which Russia has been demolishing its electric power grid, and would give it a vastly better chance of shooting down ballistic missiles as well.

Ukraine’s armed forces still have more items on their wish list. Mr Zelensky’s generals say that Russia’s army has adapted to their use of American HIMARS rocket-launching systems by keeping their logistical and ammunition storage points farther back behind the front lines. To hit them, Ukraine would need longer-range rockets for its HIMARS, known as ATACMS. The Pentagon has so far declined to provide these for fear that they could be used to strike targets inside Russia, which the Kremlin would view as a serious provocation. Asked about this by a Ukrainian journalist on Wednesday, Mr Biden hinted that providing longer-range weapons might risk splitting the alliance.

Ukraine has also insistently requested Western tanks to help it reconquer the rest of the territory currently occupied by Russian forces. That request, too, has gone unmet. In an interview with The Economist earlier this month, Valery Zaluzhny, Ukraine’s top general, said that he needed “tanks, APCs [armoured personnel carriers], and…ammunition” to carry his forces through an expected Russian offensive this winter.

Such requests are easy enough to make in a phone call or teleconference. General Zaluzhny is in frequent touch with America’s top generals, and Mr Zelensky and his senior staff with the State Department and White House. But the pageantry of a presidential visit in wartime has enormous diplomatic value. Mr Zelensky’s trip—by secure train to the border, then from the Polish city of Rzeszow in an American military transport to Joint Base Andrews in Maryland—reminds Western audiences of the drama of wartime leadership. And it is a poignant way of thanking Ukraine’s most important backer.

In Washington, DC, the Ukrainian leader’s presence helps to focus politicians’ minds. The visit “adds a sense of urgency, a buzz, that is so much more effective than a Zoom call,” says Bill Taylor, a former American ambassador to Ukraine. Diplomacy is a form of show business with far graver stakes. As a former television star, Mr Zelensky has been adept at appealing to foreign politicians remotely; his gruff visage has already commanded screens in the legislatures of most of the West’s capitals, including Washington, DC. He has deftly tailored his message to his audience, with Churchillian cadences for the British (“We shall fight in the woods, in the fields, on the beaches”) and references to Mount Rushmore and Pearl Harbour for the Americans. All this has been highly effective in helping to sustain support for Ukraine and its war effort.

Now Congress has had a chance to experience his act in person. Joint sessions of Congress provide plenty of opportunity for political theatre. They do not happen often. Mr Zelensky’s is only the twelfth in the past ten years, and fully a third of those have involved Ukrainians. (These include an appearance by a previous president, Petro Poroshenko, in 2014; Mr Zelensky’s virtual session in March; and a speech by his wife, Olena, who visited Washington in July.)

The standing ovations send a strong signal: Jens Stoltenberg, NATO’s secretary-general, also received many of them when he spoke to a joint session in 2019 to mark the alliance’s 70th anniversary, at a time when, under Donald Trump’s presidency, America’s commitment to the alliance was in some doubt. And they are an opportunity to deliver a clear message. Mr Stoltenberg’s was simple and memorable: “It’s good to have friends.” Mr Zelensky can certainly vouch for that.

Correction (December 22nd 2022): This article has been amended to reflect that Andrews Air Force Base has, since a merger in 2009, been known as Joint Base Andrews; and that it is based in Maryland, not Virginia.

Editor’s note (December 22nd): This story has been updated to include details of President Zelensky’s visit.

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