Background to the visit
At the beginning of Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky refused to travel abroad. Urgent problems with Western partners were solved either through the help of phone conversations or during blitz visits to Kyiv by international partners, such as (then) U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Minister Lloyd Austin.
The organization of an in-person meeting between Zelensky and U.S. President Joe Biden was also complicated by the fact the U.S. president could not personally come to Kyiv for security reasons.
Nine months into the war, the situation at the front was under the solid control of the Ukrainian military-political leadership, and Zelensky had an opportunity to leave the country's borders. Moreover, modern technologies meant the Supreme Commander-in-Chief could communicate confidentially with the command of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) from anywhere in the world. As such, the stage was set.
The possibility of Zelensky making foreign trips had been discussed for a long time. The only condition he set was that the first foreign visit must be made to the U.S., the main donor of military and technical assistance, and key partner and ally of Ukraine. Zelensky received an invitation from Biden in a telephone conversation on Dec. 11, and a few days later the decision was made about the trip.
Dramaturgy of the visit
The group that organized Zelensky’s U.S. visit deserves the highest marks. The composition of events connected Bakhmut, Kyiv and Washington, the Ukrainian-Russian front, and the authorities in Ukraine and the U.S., into a single military-political node.
At first, observers praised Zelensky’s trip to Bakhmut, where bloody and fierce battles are taking place, and his awarding of medals to fighters on the front lines. It was a powerful signal – the commander of the AFU and the Supreme Commander-in-Chief will periodically were ready to make their presences felt at the side of the fighters to emphasize how the entire country is with them.
Comparisons made between the actions of Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin did not favor Putin, who had awarded medals to traitors like Denis Pushylin in the safe halls of the Kremlin.
After his return to Kyiv, Zelensky began his long journey to Washington DC, during which several planned symbolic details captivated both the U.S. elite and ordinary Americans.
Biden received as a gift, a medal of the Ukrainian military, commander of the HIMARS battery, and in return he promised to give Zelensky his son's command coin from Iraq.
Later, Zelensky handed over to Congress a Ukrainian flag signed by the soldiers defending Bakhmut.
His speech to Congress was full of references to historical events, battles and symbols that are familiar to most Americans. He was interrupted 21 (!) times by applause and standing ovations.
I am not a political supporter of the current president, and I have been quite cautious about his actions. But now I am proud of our President Zelensky, and sincerely grateful – no doubt like most Ukrainians – for this visit and its impact on morale.
Of course, the U.S. did not only welcome the Ukrainian president, but the Ukrainian people – supporting them in their difficult struggle against the Russian aggressor in the wake of its unprovoked attack on our Motherland.
Impact of the visit
Much has been written about the impact of Zelensky's visit. Various assessments have been given – it has been called "historic", "pivotal" and "epochal", but the word "first" is most often used. Well, everyone is entitled to their own evaluations. But, as a historian by education, I know for sure that historical, epochal and tide-turning events only become apparent, in the best cases, decades later.
I will also remind you that former President of Ukraine, Viktor Yushchenko, in 2005; and later Petro Poroshenko in 2014, also spoke before the U.S. Congress and were greeted no less warmly.
So, what are the results of Zelensky's stateside visit?
First, any further talk about a possible reduction of aid to Ukraine or its termination in general have lost all ground.
Zelensky’s trip cemented support from America's political elite and united President Biden’s administration. It also brought together both parties of Congress in a shared desire to help Ukraine in its fight against the aggressor, and in the protection of democratic values.
This does not mean that we have received unconditional and long-term support. On the contrary, there will be increased control over the use of aid funds, weapons and alleged cases of corruption. A small group of “Make America Great Again” Trumpist-Republicans will do everything possible to ensure that Ukraine is under the constant watchful eye of inspection bodies.
Our task is to do everything possible to ensure that the process of using financial resources is transparent and effective, and that potential corruptors cannot even think about organizing shadow organizations.
Second, all members of the anti-Putin coalition received a clear and powerful signal – aid to Ukraine will only increase and weapons will continue to be provided, which is something the AFU could only dream of a couple of months ago.
But, for our victory, we need not only air defense/anti-missile defense systems, but also modern tanks, planes, and howitzers. I hope that Germany, which recently announced that it will not supply Leopard-2 tanks “alone”, will finally realize that the situation has changed qualitatively. And the weapons that are so necessary for the AFU to win will finally go to Ukraine.
Third, Zelensky left the U.S. with real gifts. It's not just another aid package worth $1.8 billion. A real highlight is a battery of the Patriot air defense/anti-aircraft system. This step taken by the Biden Administration once again confirmed the old truth: nothing is impossible in this world.
On Dec. 23, Congress voted to allocate $45 billion in aid to Ukraine in 2023.
Zelensky's visit to the U.S. certainly rounded off 2022 on a positive note.
As 2022 ends…
We remember a year which saw the launch of a brutal war that has brought grief and death en masse to Ukrainian settlements, and seen the enemy try to "bomb" Ukraine back into the Middle Ages and freeze Ukrainians during winter.
But we move into 2023, despite all trials and tribulations, on a positive note. The AFU has seized the strategic initiative on the battlefield and has conducted a number of brilliant offensive operations. We are returning our territories.
We believe that 2023 will be the year of Victory.
Ihor Zhdanov is a co-founder of the Open Policy Foundation, a non-government organization (NGO) in Ukraine.
The views expressed are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.