Biden and Zelensky plan to meet in Washington for the Ukrainian president’s first foreign trip since the war began.
President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky plan to meet at the White House on Wednesday, according to two sources familiar with the ongoing planning, in what would be a surprise visit that could change due to security concerns.
The visit, which has not been finalized and has been kept highly restricted due to security concerns, will coincide with the administration’s intention to send the country a new defense assistance package that will include Patriot missile systems. It would mark Zelensky’s first trip outside Ukraine since the Russian invasion began in February this year. His possible visit to Washington could also include a speech before Congress.
The White House declined to comment on a possible Biden visit or announcement or new security assistance announcements. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi did not confirm reports that Zelensky would be coming to the Capitol on Wednesday, saying: “I don’t know if that’s going to happen.”
“We do not know it yet. We just don’t know,” she said.
When asked by CNN if the invitation had been extended to him, she said: “No. Not until we know if he can come.
A visit by the Ukrainian leader to Washington would amount to a significant moment 10 months after Russia’s war in Ukraine began. Zelensky has become an international personification of the Ukrainian resistance to the invasion and has spent much of the year asking nations for support.
He has delivered those calls virtually, broadcast to international summits and global legislatures to make his case for more weapons and funding. He has remained inside his country during the war, a reflection both of his desire to unite his embattled country and of the precarious security situation he would face outside Ukraine.
At the start of the war, Zelensky holed up in the capital, Kyiv, often addressing the nation from undisclosed locations. More recently, he traveled to some of the war fronts, including on Tuesday when he visited the frontline town of Bakhmut in the Donetsk region of eastern Ukraine. Ukrainian and Russian forces have been locked in a brutal battle there for months.
Zelensky met with soldiers and handed out awards, according to his office. A video posted on state television showed the president dressed in uniform and a bulletproof vest handing out awards to troops. Bakhmut has seen some of the fiercest fighting across the country since Russian forces launched their siege on the city in May, turning it into ruins.
Pelosi has been calling members urging them to appear on Capitol Hill Wednesday out of fear the chamber will be empty before the holiday recess, one member said. Pelosi asked members to attend Wednesday night “for a very special focus on democracy.”
The expectation of the members, according to several sources, is that Zelensky will address the Congress on Wednesday. But sources warn that this may not be final yet for security reasons.
Ukraine has been asking the US to send in the advanced long-range air defense system that is highly effective at intercepting cruise and ballistic missiles as it comes under a barrage of Russian missile and drone strikes that have destroyed key infrastructure across the country.
A Patriot missile battery would be the most effective long-range defensive weapons system sent to the country and officials say it will help secure airspace for NATO nations in Eastern Europe. CNN first reported last week that the United States plans to send Patriot systems to Ukraine.
It is not clear how many missile launchers will ship, but a typical Patriot battery includes a radar suite that detects and tracks targets, computers, power generation equipment, a combat control station, and up to eight launchers, each with four missiles ready to fire.
Once plans are finalized, the Patriots are expected to ship quickly in the coming days and the Ukrainians will be trained to use them at a US Army base in Grafenwoehr, Germany, officials said.
Ukraine has been requesting the system for months, but the logistical challenges of delivering and operating it are immense. Despite those hurdles, “the reality of what’s happening on the ground” led the administration to make the decision, the senior administration official told CNN, pointing to continued heavy Russian missile barrages.
Unlike smaller air defense systems, Patriot missile batteries need much larger crews, requiring dozens of people to operate them properly. Training for Patriot missile batteries normally takes several months, a process the United States will now carry out under the pressure of almost daily airstrikes from Russia.
The system is widely considered to be one of the most capable long-range weapons for defending airspace against incoming cruise and ballistic missiles, as well as against some aircraft. Due to its long-range and high-altitude capability, it can potentially shoot down Russian missiles and aircraft far from its intended targets inside Ukraine.
This story has been updated with additional reports.