Ukraine Buoyed by Hero’s Welcome for Zelensky in Washington

KYIV, Ukraine — President Volodymyr Zelensky’s unannounced trip to Washingtonon Wednesday buoyed morale back home in Ukraine, where millions have been plunged into darkness and cold from Russian missile strikes that have knocked out power as winter sets in.

After weeks of a stalemate along much of the front, some Ukrainians said on Thursday they had been cheered to see many members of Congress chant during Mr. Zelensky’s appearance a day earlier the patriotic refrain “Glory to heroes!”

The high-profile visit was greeted in Ukraine mostly with pride and hope that their president’s impassioned in-person appeals would keep American weapons and financial support flowing.

“Friends, everything will be fine, Ukraine will be fine, we will be given everything, we will be helped,” Valeriy Tryhub, a ski instructor, wrote in a post on Facebook.

Reached by telephone later, Mr. Tryhub said that he had stayed up until 2:30 a.m. to watch Mr. Zelensky’s address to a joint session of Congress, where the Ukrainian leader received standing ovations and presented Vice President Kamala Harris and Speaker Nancy Pelosi with a Ukrainian flag that had been signed by soldiers.

“This is, without exaggeration, an historical event,” he said of Mr. Zelensky’s first trip abroad since Russia’s invasion in February.

Tetiana Bisyk, a writer, said on Twitter on Thursday, “My whole life, I never imagined the president of Ukraine would be addressing Congress,” and added, “I am so proud to be Ukrainian.”

After his speech, Mr. Zelensky was given a flag by Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris. Credit…Kenny Holston/The New York Times

In Russia, President Vladimir V. Putin claimed he wanted the fighting to end and called on Ukraine to negotiate. “Our goal is not to spin this flywheel of a military conflict, but, on the contrary, to end this war,” he said at a news conference on Thursday. “We are striving for this and will continue to.”

But sticking to the Kremlin’s propaganda script, Mr. Putin accused the United States of bringing war to Ukraine back in 2014 by, he said, supporting the country’s pro-Western revolution and Ukrainian military action in the country’s east. (In fact, it was Russia that fueled and largely orchestrated a separatist conflict there.)

Moscow has accused Ukraine of being unwilling to sit down for talks, and Mr. Putin did so again on Thursday. “Sooner or later, of course, any parties in a state of conflict sit down and come to an agreement,” he said. “The faster this realization comes to those who oppose us, the better.”

Mr. Zelensky’s visit to Washington was treated by Russian commentators with derision.

“A guy in a rumpled green sweater, who is called president of an independent sovereign state, flew in an American plane to an American air base,” said Rodion Miroshnik, a pro-Kremlin analyst.

Some Russian commentators said that the way he had traveled to Washington proved he was as an America stooge.

“A petty demon came to see old Satan,” declared Vladimir Solovyov, host of the main political talk show on Russia’s state television network.

On Thursday, Dmitri S. Peskov, Mr. Putin’s spokesman, also said — as the Kremlin has argued before — that the trip showcased the United States’ commitment to fighting Russia “to the last Ukrainian.”

The Zelensky visit drew praise from two allies of Ukraine’s, Germany and France.

Mr. Zelensky and President Biden in the Oval Office on Wednesday.Credit…Tom Brenner for The New York Times

Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmerman, chairwoman of the defense committee in Germany’s Parliament, said on Thursday it was a relief to see that rivalries between Republicans and Democrats had not undermined the United States’ backing of Ukraine in the war.

“It was an incredibly important signal to all Ukrainians fighting for their survival, but also a very powerful gesture to Europe, that the United States is standing by Europe,” she said.

In Germany, a spokesman for Chancellor Olaf Scholz called Mr. Zelensky’s visit a “hopeful sign,” though not a “game changer.”

In France, the visit was widely viewed as historic, with Mr. Zelensky described as having been welcomed like a hero. “It’s a real show of force,” Dominique de Villepin, France’s foreign minister from 2002 to 2004, told France Inter radio.

Even amid the euphoria in Ukraine, some struck a note of caution.

Mr. Zelensky was returning home with at least one tangible gain: an additional $1.8 billion in military aid announced on Wednesday that included a Patriot missile battery, one of the most advanced air-defense systems. But passage in Congress of an omnibus spending bill, which includes nearly $50 billion in additional funding for Ukraine, did not occur immediately on Wednesday night because of an impasse over immigration policy, and talks were still ongoing.

Artur Bilous, a political analyst, wrote on Facebook that while “no Ukrainian president was ever greeted like this” in Washington, Mr. Zelensky’s trip would ultimately be gauged a success only if it helped speed up the flow of weaponry.

“In particular, how quickly military aid will be delivered, first of all the Patriot air defense system,” Mr. Bilous wrote.

A Ukrainian mechanized infantry brigade on the front line in the Donbas region on Thursday.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Still, it was a mostly triumphant visit, planned in stealth, for Mr. Zelensky, a former comedic actor who was elected in a landslide in 2019 but whose popularity was slumping before Russia invaded. Mr. Zelensky remained in Kyiv even when the capital seemed about to fall early in the war, and most Ukrainians quickly set aside politics to rally around their president.

“Putin, I hope you are watching this real time,” Kira Rudik, a member of Ukraine’s Parliament, posted on Twitter. “We. Will. Win.”

At home, Mr. Zelensky’s trip receivedheavy coverage in most news outlets, offering a break from updates on the electrical blackouts in Kyiv and fighting along the front.

“The fact is that the Ukrainian president has turned into a symbol of democracy and courage for Western voters,” Evropeiska Pravda, an online news site, reported.

The trip helped shore up bipartisan support for Ukraine assistance in the United States, the outlet suggested in a commentary. “Voters, all the more American voters, love heroes,” it said.

The moment is critical, said Mr. Tryhub, the ski instructor.

“We now, more than ever, need world support in the struggle for independence,” he said. “The United States is one of the many countries that finally realized that without foreign support, we cannot win. So we need help, especially since we have common values ​​such as democracy and freedom.”

On his way back from Washington on Thursday, Mr. Zelensky landed in Poland, where, he said, he met with President Andrzej Duda.

Mr. Zelensky also recorded a video highlighting specific gains that grew out of the talks with the Americans, including weapons Ukraine will receive under the package of military aid announced in Washington. That package included Patriot air-defense missiles, which Mr. Putin dismissed as outdated in his news conference on Thursday but will come as welcome news for Ukrainians regularly terrorized by waves of Russian rocket attacks targeting electrical infrastructure.

“We are traveling with good results,” Mr. Zelensky said. “These results will really help.”

He noted the agreement on transferring Patriots to Ukraine and hinted at additional aid that had not yet been announced. The Ukrainian leader said he would speak of those other agreements later.

Andrew E. Kramer reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia. Reporting was contributed by Maria Varenikova from Kyiv, Anton Troianovski and Erika Solomon from Berlin, and Aurelien Breeden from Paris.

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