Zelensky was awarded Poland’s highest honor, the Order of the White Eagle, during a meeting with Polish President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw.
The Ukrainian leader passed through Poland on his way to visits to the United States and Britain in recent months, but Wednesday’s trip marks his first dedicated stop in the country that has taken in more than a million Ukrainian refugees and led the way in urging NATO partners to send Kyiv more military supplies.
It also marks a normalization of Zelensky’s diplomatic duties, as he looks to press the West to keep up its support in the second year of Russia’s war.
Unlike previous visits abroad in recent months – which were typically announced at a moment’s notice and involved high-stakes travel under cover of darkness – Zelensky is traveling accompanied by his wife and the visit itself encompasses a fuller schedule.
“You have not abandoned Ukraine, you stood with us shoulder to shoulder, and we are grateful to you. We believe this is a historic relationship,” Zelensky said at a joint appearance with Duda.
“Your personal attitude to our people, millions of Ukrainians who have found shelter in Poland, who feel at home here – I want to thank the entire Polish nation for all of this and for those first days and weeks when we needed this help so much,” he added.
The show of friendship epitomized the extent to which Ukrainian-Polish relations have flourished in the face of Moscow’s war. Though the two countries share an intertwined but complicated past, Poles – like their neighbors – have long been wary of the Russian threat, and keeping Moscow at bay has been considered a crucial joint objective of each nation.
Duda said Zelensky was a “man of outstanding qualities,” as he awarded him with the Order of the White Eagle during a ceremony at the Presidential Palace.
“He is a unique man; you, Volodymyr are unique,” Duda told Zelensky. “Having received the mandate from your people, you suddenly were called to a unique mission that nobody could have foreseen.”
“None of us a year ago, after the Russian invasion could have known what would happen to Ukraine and what would happen personally to you … we have no doubt that your stance today will save Ukraine from the Russian aggression,” he said.
He will also meet with representatives of Polish businesses, volunteers and rescuers, and the mayors of cities bordering Ukraine.
Poland has been a steadfast ally of Ukraine since Russia invaded, and has taken in more people displaced by the war than any other country.
That commitment has partially mended Warsaw’s rocky relationship with the European Union, and seen the country emerge as a leading NATO member in combating Russia’s threat.
The trip comes amid a slow-moving military stalemate in eastern Ukraine. Zelensky recently visited troops near the frontline in the Donbas, where Russia has made little territorial progress for several months.
Ukraine has meanwhile received its first shipments of tanks from the United Kingdom, Germany and other Western countries in the past weeks, following weeks of negotiations earlier in the year in which Warsaw was a crucial broker. Kyiv hopes that the arrival of the vehicles will allow units on the frontline to be more aggressive in attacking Russian positions.
Last month, Poland also became the first NATO countries to pledge fighter jets to Ukraine, sending four MiG-29 planes.
With fighting generally confined to Ukraine’s east and bogged down in trench warfare, Zelensky appears to be cautiously taking advantage of his increased ability to visit world leaders in person and make the case for more support.
NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg indicated on Tuesday that Zelensky has also been invited to the alliance’s summit, taking place in the Lithuanian capital of Vilnius in July.
“A strong independent Ukraine is vital for the stability of the Euro-Atlantic area, and we look forward to meeting President Zelensky at our Vilnius summit in July,” Stoltenberg said.
CNN’s Vasco Cotovio, Antonia Mortensen and Sviatlana Vlasova contributed reporting.