A few months ago Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s aides were adamant. The president would not go abroad until Russia was defeated. In the days after Vladimir Putin’s February invasion, as Russian tanks rolled towards Kyiv, Zelenskiy refused to flee. He turned down offers of assistance and told his citizens: “I’m here.” He also famously declared: “I need ammunition, not a ride.”
On Wednesday, however, Zelenskiy was riding to Washington by plane at the personal invitation of President Joe Biden. It is his first foreign trip since Russia’s full-scale attack. It comes at a pivotal moment: on the battlefield, where Russian and Ukrainian troops are locked in a grinding face-off, and in the politically rancorous halls of the US Congress.
Zelenskiy is expected to speak there in a special address this evening. Up until recently, support for Ukraine has been a largely bipartisan affair. In March, Zelenskiy gave a video address to members of the House of Representatives and Senate, likening Russia’s onslaught to the agonies of Pearl Harbor and 9/11. The room went quiet. Some congresspeople wiped away tears.
Ten months later, and with the Republicans about to take control of the House of Representatives, there are signs this consensus is beginning to fracture. America-first conservatives have increasingly questioned the vast amounts of US aid – military and economic – being delivered to Ukraine. The influential Fox News host Tucker Carlson has repeated Kremlin talking points and joked he was “rooting” for Moscow.
Zelenskiy will probably remind his audience that the war is not a local conflict fought between two unhappy neighbours. It is, as he sees it, a struggle for democracy and the future of the world order. If Russia wins, any state with a territorial grudge can roll over another, citing Ukraine as a precedent. If Kyiv prevails, it is a victory for law-based international norms. And for the ideas of freedom and self-determination.
The White House will reinforce this existential good versus evil message by announcing an enormous military aid package worth almost $2bn (£1.6bn). It will include, among other things, the Patriot air defence system. Troops will be trained in a third country before the complex system is shipped to Ukraine. The Patriots will – it is hoped – blunt Russia’s remorseless missile strikes on energy infrastructure.
The Biden administration also wants Congress this week to approve additional funding for Ukraine of almost $45bn. Zelenskiy’s presence in Washington will make this vote a little easier. Ukraine will lead the evening cable news bulletins. Overall, the trip underscores how the US is indispensable to Ukraine. It is the one essential world power that can determine when the war might end, and on whose terms.
Andriy Zagorodnyuk, Ukraine’s former defence minister, described the visit as “very symbolic”. He told the Guardian: “The US is a crucial ally of Ukraine. It provides most of the essential military assistance, drives economic help and deters Russia’s nuclear threats.” It was an opportunity for Biden and Zelenskiy to meet face to face, after months of long-distance video teleconferencing calls.
Zelenskiy arrives in the US fresh from a visit on Tuesday to the frontline city of Bakhmut in the east of the country – “perhaps the most dangerous place on our planet today,” according to Zagorodnyuk. It has been the scene of bitter months-long fighting, with Russia throwing soldiers into battle. Zagorodnyuk said Zelenskiy showed courage and personal initiative. All of this was in contrast to Putin, he suggested.
Back in February, the Kremlin had expected to seize Kyiv in a matter of days. The attack failed. This autumn Russian troops were forced to abandon Kharkiv province in the north-east, and the city of Kherson and surrounding villages on the right bank of the Dnipro river in the south. In military terms, this has been an unforeseen humiliation. It brings growing political dangers at home.
Putin now appears to be calculating that a new round of mobilisation in the spring will turn the tide. He is plotting to attack Ukraine again from the north and Belarus, Kyiv believes. This 2023 offensive – if it happens – may be Russia’s last opportunity to seize victory for its flagging special military operation. The stakes are high. Defeat could spell the end for Putin’s regime, Zagorodnyuk believes.
Russia’s president may also be gambling that the US-led anti-Kremlin coalition will weaken amid voters’ discontent over high energy bills and popular Ukraine war fatigue. So far this hasn’t happened. Britain, Germany, and other important European allies have made it clear they have no intention of leaving Ukraine in the lurch.
Next year may prove to be another historic moment, after the dark and terrible months of 2022. Zelenskiy has said he will only negotiate with Russia once its troops have left all Ukrainian territory they occupy, including Crimea, annexed in 2014. He wants reparations from Moscow for the billions in damage, and Nuremberg-style war trials for Putin and his generals.
We are some way from that. But Zelenskiy has proved himself a consummate politician. His trip to the US could bring his defiant nation one step closer to victory.
• Luke Harding’s Invasion: Russia’s Bloody War and Ukraine’s Fight for Survival is published by Guardian Faber and available from the Guardian bookshop. Delivery charges may apply.