Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with President Joe Biden in Washington on Wednesday, the culmination of a years-long struggle to get a White House visit locked up that – at one point – saw him at the center of US politics.
The much-anticipated gathering could have high-stakes implications for Zelensky, who has vied for American support since he took over in 2019. His ascension to office led to a congratulatory call from then-President Donald Trump, who pushed Zelensky to investigate Biden and his son, Hunter. The call was at the heart of Trump’s first impeachment by the House before the Senate acquitted the then-President, finding him not guilty of abuse of power and obstruction of Congress.
The White House meeting, some two years after both Zelensky and Biden were ensnared in that historic first impeachment, marked an opportunity for the Eastern European leader to set a new tone with a new administration in person.
Zelensky, for his part, has suggested that he wants to move on.
Late Wednesday afternoon on Capitol Hill, the Ukrainian President was asked about the impeachment and whether the US-Ukraine relationship has improved.
“I would like Ukraine to be known, not notorious,” he responded.
In the Oval Office earlier Wednesday, Zelensky made big requests for the Biden administration in front of the press, including getting the US’ input on Ukraine’s chances of joining NATO, establishing the potential US role in reaching a settlement in the Donbas region of Ukraine, and requesting American assistance in freeing hundreds of individuals imprisoned in Donbas.
“I have a very big agenda for our relations, maybe not for this meeting, which is too short to answer all the questions,” Zelensky said, adding that Ukrainian security issues would be a priority for the meeting.
Questions about the US’ long-term foreign policy approach remain in the air.
Trump challenged America’s long-standing diplomatic role in the world, building a nationalist platform he assured would put “America first” and often siding with Russia despite its escalating aggressions with Ukraine in their ongoing dispute over Crimea. And though Biden has asserted that American diplomacy is back, even allies are wondering how long it’ll last – especially in the wake of the US’ withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Biden stated that “the United States remains firmly committed to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity in the face of Russian aggression, and our support for Ukraine’s Euro-Atlantic aspirations.” He also said the US and Ukraine “have a similar value system.”
Biden indicated that the US will “continue to support Ukraine as it advances its democratic reforms agenda and movement toward being completely integrated in Europe.” And the joint statement from the two countries issued Wednesday afternoon also underscored the US’ solidarity with Ukraine.
“In the 21st century, nations cannot be allowed to redraw borders by force. Russia violated this ground rule in Ukraine,” the statement read, later underscoring that “the United States does not and will never recognize Russia’s purported annexation of Crimea(.)”
Details of Wednesday’s visit
Biden senior administration officials said the White House meeting would be designed to demonstrate the US’ commitment to Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, saying on a call with reporters on Monday that “in the 30 years since Ukraine achieved independence, our strategic partnership has never been stronger than it is now.”
In the Oval Office, Biden formally announced $60 million in new security assistance, which officials on the call said would include new Javelin anti-armor missiles. Officials said he’s expected to get an update on the security situation in the region amid continued acts of Russian aggression. He’ll also press Zelensky to make reforms in his country targeting corruption.
A source at a US-based firm that engages closely with the Ukrainian government indicated that NATO membership and the defense agreement were top of mind.
Aside from defense cooperation and Zelensky’s reform agenda, energy is another major topic of discussion that will arise. Biden hopes to boost support for Ukraine’s energy sector after completion of Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline. The Ukrainian leader previously said he thought the US’ easing of Nord Stream 2 sanctions would be a victory for Russia and a personal loss for Biden.
After the meeting with the Congressional Ukraine Caucus Wednesday afternoon, Zelensky told reporters through a translator that he and Biden discussed the “safeguards” in place with Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, while saying the details of those safeguards still had to be developed.
The US announced in the joint statement that it is expanding its Covid-19 assistance to Ukraine, providing “cold chain storage support and an additional $12.8 million in COVID-related assistance drawn from the America Rescue Plan Act.” The US has already donated nearly 2.2 million Covid-19 vaccine doses to the country. The US will provide an additional $45 million in humanitarian assistance to Ukraine this year and also plans to allocate over $463 million for development assistance, “including for programs focused on democracy, human rights, local governance and decentralization, privatization, and judicial reform,” according to the statement.
Zelensky’s visit to the White House comes after earlier meetings in Washington.
On Tuesday, Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and her Ukrainian counterpart, Minister of Energy Herman Galushchenko, signed on to a strategic energy and climate dialogue alongside Zelensky. Zelensky and Minister of Defense Andrii Taranto also visited the Pentagon on Tuesday, where the US and Ukraine signed on to a strategic defense framework.
A long-awaited meeting
Earlier this summer, Zelensky implored Biden to hold an in-person meeting before the US President’s meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Geneva, Switzerland. Ultimately, the White House rejected the request, opting instead for a summer meeting in Washington.
During his time with Putin in Geneva, Biden indicated that Ukraine would be top of mind during the summit and said later that he had “communicated the United States’ unwavering commitment to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
The meeting between Zelensky and Biden was originally scheduled to occur on Tuesday, but was moved as it became clear that August 31 would be consumed with the final day of the war in Afghanistan.
The source at the US-based firm said there had been some unhappiness in Kiev about the shifting calendar for the visit, which had originally been eyed for late July, as well as some concern about the strength of US support for Ukraine in light of its moves on Nord Stream 2 and Biden meeting with Putin prior to meeting with Zelensky.
“Bringing two heads of state together is a complicated and fast-moving process,” a Biden official said on Monday’s call. “We want this meeting to receive the attention that it deserves. There is a wide range of issues for the two sides to discuss, and we’re really looking forward to having the time and space to do that on Wednesday.”
This story has been updated with additional details Wednesday.
CNN’s Jennifer Hansler and Jeremy Herb contributed to this report.