Ukraine’s President Zelensky gets standing ovation at US Congress
WASHINGTON — Ukraine’s president thanked “every American family” in an emotional but defiant address to the US Congress on Wednesday aimed at countering growing skepticism over US military aid as Kyiv’s war with Russia drags into the new year.
It was Volodymyr Zelensky’s first overseas trip since Moscow launched the full-scale invasion on Feb. 24, a ruthless offensive that has upended the global economy and led to widespread destruction and death.
Entering the House chamber, where members are expected to pass another massive Ukraine aid deal later this week, Zelensky was met with a thunderous standing ovation.
A handful of Republicans strongly aligned with former President Donald Trump, who have expressed concerns over the US support for Ukraine, notably refused to applaud.
“On this special Christmastime, I want to thank you, all of you. I thank every American family which cherishes the warmth of its home and wishes the same warmth to other people,” he told lawmakers who had given him a lengthy standing ovation as he walked into the House chamber.
The conflict has begun to recede from the headlines in the United States, with no end to the fighting in sight and Republicans who take over the House of Representatives in January showing signs of weakening resolve.
In what was billed by US media as the most important speech of Zelenskyy’s career, he told a joint meeting of the House and Senate his country would never surrender, adding: “Ukraine is alive and kicking.”
But he urged lawmakers—many of whom were dressed in the blue and yellow of the Ukraine flag—to do more for his nation through the brutal winter months, pleading for more weapons and financial aid.
“We have artillery. Thank you. Is it enough? Honestly—not really,” he said in a frank moment that pierced what had been an upbeat atmosphere, with his words accompanied by several outbursts of spontaneous applause.
Zelenskyy’s speech, delivered in English, stretched for more than 20 minutes, including more standing ovations and occasional bursts of laughter, such as when the Ukrainian president—a former comedian—ventured a pun on Vladimir Putin’s name.
Discussing his visit on Tuesday to the war’s southeastern front line, Zelenskyy presented lawmakers with a Ukrainian battle flag signed by soldiers from the besieged city of Bakhmut.
The Washington visit, which came some 300 days after Russian hitmen parachuted into Kyiv in a failed attempt to assassinate Zelenskyy, underlined Ukraine’s near-total reliance on Washington for its defense.
It coincided with President Joe Biden announcing a first Patriot missile defense system for Ukraine, which has been devastated by airstrikes leading to widespread power outages as winter bites.
Zelenskyy thanked politicians from both parties but his appearance was also calculated to counter fatigue for the war, particularly among isolationist Republicans who have voiced doubts over the continued flow of tax dollars to Kyiv.
Congress is poised to pass $45 billion in additional military and economic aid to Ukraine this week as part of its $1.7 trillion annual funding bill, bringing total US assistance to over $100 billion.
But House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy recently warned that Republicans—a number of whom snubbed the speech—could reject significant continued funding for Ukraine when they take over the lower chamber in January.
Just 6 percent of Republican-leaning voters believed Washington was doing too much for Ukraine in a Wall Street Journal poll in March, but that had risen to 48 percent by November.
Zelenskyy is not the first leader of a country at war to address US lawmakers in person: British prime minister Winston Churchill appeared before Congress in the thick of World War II, and leaders from Iraq and Afghanistan have given speeches more recently.
After exchanging a Ukrainian flag from the front lines of the war with a US flag that had flown on Wednesday over the US Capitol, Zelenskyy departed under another round of applause.
White House meeting
Before he addressed the special joint session of Congress, Zelenskyy was greeted by President Joe Biden in the White House Oval Office, where they sat next to a crackling fireplace.
Biden told his counterpart that Ukrainians “inspire the world.”
In downtown Washington on Wednesday, streets were dominated not just by Christmas decor but by the flag of Ukraine to mark Zelenskyy’s surprise visit to the US capital.
Pennsylvania Avenue, the grand boulevard which links the White House and Congress, was blocked off for the one-day visit of Ukraine’s president, while banners of Ukrainian yellow and blue were paired with the US flag’s red, white and blue.