(Bloomberg) — President Joe Biden promised Volodymyr Zelenskiy unwavering US support as Ukraine’s effort to beat back Russia’s invasion nears its 11th month even as support from Republicans poised to take control of the House wanes.
“The American people are with you every step of the way, and we will stay with you. We will stay with you for as long as it takes,” Biden said at the White House on Wednesday during a joint press conference, as the Ukrainian president visited Washington to firm up US support in his first trip outside his country since Moscow’s forces invaded.
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Biden, who is facing growing Republican skepticism about his administration’s financial support for Ukraine, said it was “important for the American people and for the world to hear directly from you, Mr. President, about Ukraine’s fight and the need to continue to stand together through 2023.”
The leaders met for more than two hours in the Oval Office Wednesday afternoon, with Biden saying afterward that it had been “particularly meaningful to talk with another person, look each other in the eye.”
Biden and Zelenskiy demonstrated a strong rapport, with the two men exchanging gifts, pleasantries and jokes. But there was also tension, as Zelenskiy made clear he would press the US for additional support, including advanced weaponry — requests Biden warned could risk US alliances such as NATO.
The package Biden announced Wednesday includes $1.85 billion in additional military aid, including a single Patriot missile battery to help the country bolster its defenses this winter. But it does not include weapons such as tanks or fighter jets Zelenskiy and other Ukrainians say they need to push back Russian forces.
“You said, ‘what’s going to happen after Patriots are installed?’ After that, we will send another signal to President Biden that we would like to get more Patriots,” said Zelenskiy, drawing laughs from those in attendance.
“We are in war, I am really sorry,” the Ukrainian leader added lightly.
Biden was pressed by a Ukrainian journalist on why the US could not provide Kyiv everything it wanted, including the Army Tactical Missile System.
Biden initially turned to Zelenskiy and joked, “His answer is yes.”
But the US president also defended his reluctance to provide Ukraine all the advanced weapons it seeks. “The idea that we would give Ukraine material that is fundamentally different than is already going there would have a prospect of breaking up NATO and breaking up the European Union, and the rest of the world,” Biden said.
Zelenskiy also made an emotional appeal in English, telling Americans their countries shared “the same values.”
“My message, I wish you peace. I think that is the main thing,” he said speaking about the toll the war had taken on Ukraine’s civilians. “I wish you to see your children alive,” he added. “I wish you to see your children when they will go to universities and to see their children.”
The White House meeting began a whirlwind trip that will conclude with an address to Congress in the evening. The speech to Congress gives Zelenskiy the opportunity to personally appeal to US lawmakers to continue assistance for Ukraine even after Republicans take control of the House in January.
Lawmakers are poised by the end of the week to send a $1.7 trillion fiscal 2023 spending bill to Biden that includes more than $45 billion to aid Ukraine.
But it is unclear if there will be substantial aid for Ukraine in the next Congress. House Republicans have vowed to more closely scrutinize Biden’s financial assistance to Ukraine next year. House GOP Leader Kevin McCarthy, who is likely to be the next speaker, has said Ukraine will no longer receive a “blank check” from the US.
Zelenskiy told Biden in English at the start of their meeting that Ukraine controls the situation in the war thanks to US support. He thanked him “for your big support and leadership,” but cautioned that “the war is not over.”
Zelenskiy’s visit comes at a critical stage in the war. Ukraine has faced a barrage of Russian missile and drone attacks targeting its civilians and critical energy infrastructure, leading to power and water cuts as the country’s people brace for a brutal winter.
Biden said Russia President Vladimir Putin is “trying to use winter as a weapon” by bombarding civilian infrastructure in Ukraine with missiles and drones, including power, heat and water supplies.
“But the Ukrainian people continue to inspire the world,” he said.
Biden acknowledged it would “take some time” to train Ukrainian military to use to Patriot missile battery but added that the battery “will be another critical asset for Ukraine as it defends itself against Russian aggression.”
The US president wore a dark blue and yellow tie, similar to the colors of Ukraine’s flag, and first lady Jill Biden wore a lighter blue dress. Zelenskiy wore an army-green sweater and cargo pants, his customary attire in public since Russia’s invasion. Biden placed a hand on Zelenskiy’s back when they walked into the White House.
The US president also announced $374 million for the US Agency for International Development that he said would provide food and cash assistance for more than 1.5 million Ukrainian people as well as access to health care, safe drinking water, and help stay warm.
More than 221,000 Ukrainian refugees have come to the US since March, Biden said.
—With assistance from Daryna Krasnolutska, Akayla Gardner, Josh Wingrove, Jordan Fabian and Nancy Cook.
(Updates with details on press conference starting in sixth paragraph)