WASHINGTON/KYIV, Dec 21 (Reuters) – Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy began a dramatic visit to Washington on Wednesday, saying he would seek help from President Joe Biden in bolstering Kyiv’s defences against Russia’s devastating invasion.
Zelenskiy’s political adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said earlier that the visit, his first overseas trip since Russia invaded 300 days ago, showed the deep trust between Kyiv and Washington and offered the Ukrainian leader the opportunity to explain Kyiv’s need for more advanced weaponry to turn the tables against its superpower adversary.
Just ahead of Zelenskiy’s arrival, Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced the United States would provide another $1.85 billion in military aid for Ukraine including a Patriot air defence system to help it ward off barrages of Russian missiles.
“I will hold a series of negotiations to strengthen the resilience and defence capabilities of Ukraine,” Zelenskiy said in a statement on Telegram alongside photos of him on U.S. soil before Biden and his wife Jill welcomed him at the White House.
“Next year, we must return the Ukrainian flag and freedom to our entire land, to all our people,” he said.
Shortly afterward, Biden greeted Zelenskiy – clad in his trademark olive green trousers and sweater – on the White House lawn and put his arm around the Ukrainian leader’s back.
Biden, in brief remarks before the two went in for talks, reiterated U.S. support for Ukraine against Russia’s onslaught and said Washington backed Kyiv’s desire for a just peace.
“Thank you first of all,” Zelenskiy told Biden. “It’s a great honour to be here.”
The two will participate in a joint news conference after their talks. Zelenskiy will then go to Capitol Hill to address a joint session of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Ukraine in recent weeks has come under repeated Russian missile and drone strikes targeting its energy infrastructure, leaving millions of people without electricity or running water in the dead of a freezing winter.
The Patriot missile is deemed to be one of the most advanced U.S. air defence systems, offering protection against attacking aircraft as well as cruise and ballistic missiles.
“…Weapons, weapons and more weapons. It is important to personally explain why we need certain types of weapons,” Podolyak said. “In particular, armoured vehicles, the latest missile defence systems and long-range missiles.”
Zelenskiy has made a point of staying close to his people during the war and advocating for his former Soviet state on the world stage, with daring trips to battlefronts, countless calls with world leaders and videolink speeches to parliaments and international institutions.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told MSNBC that diplomacy would be discussed with Zelenskiy, but the Ukrainian leader would face no pressure for peace talks.
Kirby said Washington was seeing no sign that Russian President Vladimir Putin was willing to engage in peacemaking.
“Clearly we’re going to make sure that President Zelenskiy, when he leaves this country, knows that he’s leaving with the full support of the United States going forward,” Kirby told MSNBC in a separate interview earlier.
The Kremlin said on Wednesday it saw no chance of peace talks with Kyiv. In a call with reporters, spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that continued Western arms supplies to Ukraine would lead to a “deepening” of the conflict.
FIX PROBLEMS, PUTIN TELLS ARMY
Putin was defiant on Wednesday at an end-of-year meeting of top defence chiefs, saying Russian forces were fighting like heroes in Ukraine, would be equipped with modern weapons and would achieve all Moscow’s goals.
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 aiming to capture the capital Kyiv in days, a goal that quickly proved out of reach.
Moscow then focused on advancing along eastern and southern fronts but has suffered a string of battlefield defeats since the summer – amid widespread reports of disorganisation, poor training and shoddy gear – and Putin on Tuesday conceded that conditions in Russian-held areas were “highly complicated”.
In his remarks on Wednesday, Putin said there were no financial limits on what the government would provide in terms of equipment and hardware, but the army had to learn from and fix the problems it had experienced in Ukraine.
He gave his backing to a plan by his defence minister to boost the size of the armed forces by more than 30% to 1.5 million combat personnel. A call-up of 300,000 reservists in September was plagued with problems, with many men physically unfit or too old and lacking basic equipment.
Putin also said he still considered Ukrainians – who have been killed in their tens of thousands, forced to flee in their millions and seen whole towns and cities destroyed – to be a “brotherly” people.
He blamed the war on “third countries (seeking) the disintegration of the Russian world”, revisiting a familiar theme. The West has rejected this as nonsense, calling Russian actions in Ukraine an imperial-style land grab.
ZELENSKIY COMPARED TO CHURCHILL
With the United States the largest military aid donor to Ukraine among Western allies, the Biden administration has provided about $20 billion in assistance to Ukraine, including artillery ammunition, munitions for NASAMS air defence systems and for high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS).
Zelenskiy has repeatedly called on the West to supply more advanced weaponry, ranging from modern battle tanks to missile defence systems, but Western allies have been cautious, keen to minimise any risk of provoking wider conflict with Russia.
U.S. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, likened Zelenskiy’s quest to Britain’s World War Two leader Winston Churchill, who sought U.S. aid against Nazi Germany.
“Where Winston Churchill stood generations ago, so too President Zelenskiy stands not just as a president, but also as an ambassador of freedom itself,” the top Senate Democrat said. “Now is not the time…to take our foot off the gas when it comes to helping Ukraine.”
Reporting by Reuters bureaus; Writing by Nick Macfie and Mark Heinrich; Editing by Tomasz Janowski, Alex Richardson and Cynthia Osterman
Copyright 2022 Thomson Reuters.
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