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Zelenskyy visits Washington to meet with Biden and address Congress


Three hundred days after Russia invaded Ukraine, the president of Ukraine, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has left his country for the first time since war began. He has traveled to shore up support from a key ally, the United States of America.


PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: We understand in our bones that Ukraine's fight is part of something much bigger.

KELLY: President Biden met with Zelenskyy this afternoon at the White House. Both leaders spoke with reporters afterwards. Tonight, President Zelenskyy will address a joint meeting of Congress. NPR's White House correspondent Asma Khalid, diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen and Tim Mak in Ukraine are here to brief us. Asma, you kick us off. What was the main message we heard from these two leaders today at the White House?

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Well, I would say the main message was about showing solidarity in the face of Russia's attacks this winter. But it was also clearly about showing bipartisan support here at home for the ongoing war in Ukraine. In his remarks this afternoon, President Biden made it clear multiple times, in fact, that the United States will continue to aid Ukraine for as long as this war takes.

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BIDEN: As we head into the new year, it's 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.

KHALID: And this message comes as some polls have shown that some Americans are questioning the large sums of money being sent to Ukraine with really no end to the war in sight right now.

KELLY: Tim, you are there in the thick of it. You're watching from Odesa, Ukraine. One of the big questions has been, what does Zelenskyy - on behalf of his people, but what does he see as a way to end the war? And he actually brought up this today, this notion of a, quote, "just peace." What did he say?

TIM MAK, BYLINE: Well, he was talking about what the conditions for a just peace might involve. And he said it would include the ability to maintain sovereignty and territorial integrity and freedom for his country. And these are things that could take some time to achieve. He spoke about how the longer this goes on, the more injustice occurs, the more people would be motivated by thoughts of revenge. And, you know, this really fits with the conversations I've had with Ukrainians over the past year.

When the war initially started, there were - there was a lot of hope that the war could end in a matter of months. But following revelations of atrocities in formerly Russian-held territories and the long-drawn-out violence that has taken place over the past 10 months, there are many, many more who think that Ukraine should not seek peace until it gets back all its territory, all the things that they think Ukraine deserves. And in a lot of my conversations in Ukraine this past week, I found myself talking with a number of people who thought this war could go on now for years.

KELLY: For years - well, that brings us to diplomacy. Michele, the U.S. is leading the allies, leading the coalition, supporting Ukraine. What was Biden's message about that role for America?

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Well, President Biden and his administration have been careful throughout this war not to push Zelenskyy into offering concessions to Russia, and Biden was talking about that again today. They say that Russia has shown no signs that it's interested in peace. Even today in Moscow, Vladimir Putin was telling his top brass that he's going to give the army everything it needs with no financial limits to win. And - but President Biden points out that the war is taking a toll on Russia. He said Putin thought he could weaken NATO, but NATO is stronger. He said Putin thought he would win this war quickly. But now we're 300 days in, and the U.S. and its partners are still pouring in military equipment and aid into Ukraine, in part to help Zelenskyy - to put him in the best possible position if and when peace talks are possible.

KELLY: Speaking of pouring in aid, there were some specifics announced today, new aid that the U.S. is providing Ukraine. Do you have details, Michele?

KELEMEN: Yeah, another nearly $2 billion in military aid and it includes a new capability for the Ukrainians - that is a Patriot missile battery. President Zelenskyy said that's going to significantly strengthen Ukraine's air defenses, which is really key as Russia bombards critical infrastructure across the country. And he doesn't want just one. He said he wants more. The U.S. still needs to train Ukrainians on how to use the system, and Biden says that's going to take some time.

KELLY: OK. Let's turn to how the rest of today is going to unfold. Asma, Zelenskyy, as we mentioned, he's headed to Capitol Hill. He's going to address the U.S. Congress tonight. What are the stakes for him?

KHALID: Well, Congress is working this week to finalize a big spending bill that includes $45 billion of new aid money for Ukraine. You know, this comes on top of the billions that we've been discussing throughout this conversation. And I will say Zelenskyy was not shy about suggesting that his country will need even more military assistance. He did make a point, though, in his remarks earlier today saying that he believes aid will continue to flow to Ukraine, even in a new Congress where Republicans will control the House. You know, Mary Louise, though, the reality is that this bipartisan support has already begun to show cracks. The GOP leader in the House, Kevin McCarthy, has said his party will not write a blank check for Ukraine. And, you know, this is noteworthy because McCarthy is likely to become speaker of the House next month. But, you know, a personal plea from Zelenskyy could be seen as a way to shift the dynamics.

KELLY: It will be really interesting to see how his message goes down as we watch the faces of all the lawmakers gather tonight. Tim Mak, we'll give you last word since you were there in Ukraine. Just give us a little bit more of a picture of how Ukrainians might be taking in this moment with everything they are going through and watching for the first time, their president outside Ukraine - first time since February 24.

MAK: Yeah, well, they're following it very closely, but it's kind of worth keeping in mind what many Ukrainians are facing today. Many of them will not be able to watch Zelenskyy's speech to Congress even if they wanted to, and that's due to Russian strikes against electrical infrastructure all across the country. Millions of people in places like Kharkiv and Kyiv and in Odesa, where I am right now, they're without electricity and without internet connections, water and heat just as temperatures are hovering around the freezing point, and we get into this deepest part of winter. It's also worth noting what Zelenskyy's decision to travel outside of Ukraine says about his thinking regarding the stability of his government and the situation of his country at war. I mean, 10 months ago, his allies in the U.S. were urging him to leave Kyiv when the war began, and he insisted on staying. So his decision to leave...

KELLY: Right.

MAK: ...Tells us that he has some comfort in the stability of his government, and he's not as worried about Russian's capability to undermine him or the Ukrainian military in his absence.

KELLY: That we're in a different phase of this war. All right. NPR's Tim Mak in Odesa, NPR correspondents Michele Kelemen and Asma Khalid in Washington - we're all going to be listening tonight. And we will be bringing you special coverage of the Zelenskyy speech starting around 7:30 Eastern. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.
Tim Mak is NPR's Washington Investigative Correspondent, focused on political enterprise journalism.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.