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Ukraine’s Zelensky set to address Congress in first foreign trip since Russian invasion

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Bakhmut, Ukraine, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky meets soldiers at the site of the heaviest battles with the Russian invaders in Bakhmut, Ukraine, on Dec. 20, 2022.
(Associated Press)
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In his first known trip abroad since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky is expected to arrive in Washington on Wednesday to meet with President Biden and address a joint session of Congress.

U.S. officials kept details of his visit under wraps given the security fears. Despite the heavy shroud placed over Zelensky’s plans, it was widely reported he would travel to Washington to visit Capitol Hill and appear at the White House.

Zelensky’s visit, his second to the United States as president, comes as lawmakers are preparing to vote on a $1.7-trillion end-of-year funding bill that includes nearly $45 billion in emergency economic and security assistance to Ukraine, $8 billion more than Biden had requested from Congress last month.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) emphasized that lawmakers should make an effort to appear in-person for Wednesday’s session.

“We are ending a very special session of the 117th Congress with legislation that makes progress for the American people as well as support for our Democracy,” Pelosi wrote to colleagues in a letter Tuesday. “Please be present for a very special focus on Democracy Wednesday night.”

Zelensky will appear before House Republicans, some of whom have expressed interest in restricting aid to Ukraine when they take over the lower chamber in January. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield) has said his party would not “write a blank check to Ukraine,” raising concerns about Washington’s ability to help Kyiv fend off Russia in the months ahead.

President Volodymyr Zelensky visits the city of Bakhmut, whose retention by Ukrainian forces has stymied Moscow’s goal of capturing the entire Donbas.

Dec. 20, 2022

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This trip would mark the first known time that Zelensky has left Ukraine since the war started Feb. 24. His determination to remain in Kyiv even as it came under attack — and as his Russian enemies claimed he had fled — and his nightly video addresses lent succor to his people and emboldened Ukrainian defenders of their land. He repeatedly refuted Russian propaganda by showing up in parts of Ukraine with a video camera in tow.

The visit also comes as Ukrainian pleas for long-range Patriot surface-to-air, antiaircraft missiles are gaining traction, with an announcement of a U.S. decision to supply the sophisticated weaponry expected as early as this week. Zelensky may believe his presence could seal the deal.

Zelensky’s appearances on the front lines, in subway stations where Ukrainians huddled in fear and even in the most war-ravaged towns like Bucha, site of enormous alleged atrocities against Ukrainian civilians by Russian troops, served as the consummate morale booster for a population that believes it is fighting for its identity.

His risky departure from the country — with an equally perilous return — comes as a surprising detour from that campaign. Zelensky may have felt it necessary to make a more forceful, personal appeal for additional U.S. weapons and other aid at a time when a soon-to-be Republican-dominated House has floated ideas of limiting such assistance.

Zelensky’s visit was first reported by Punchbowl News.

His determination to speak out for Ukraine has earned him international accolades, including Time Magazine person of the year, which said he embodied the “spirit” of a country that broke away from the former Soviet Union and now is besieged by a Russian leader who believes it should never have been allowed to separate.

U.S. officials did not supply details on how Zelensky was traveling. Numerous high-level delegations, including the prime ministers of neighboring European countries, Pelosi and U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, have ventured into Ukraine by train, traveling from Poland to Kyiv in relative safety.

But security is a shifting condition, and in recent weeks, the Russian military has escalated air strikes on numerous civilian targets across Ukraine including electrical grids, plunging much of the country’s population into darkness and cold as winter engulfs the region.

From the start of the war, Zelensky said he was Russia’s No. 1 target for assassination, and that seemed possible as the Kremlin’s troops sought — and ultimately failed — to conquer Kyiv.

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Earlier Tuesday, in another display of his flair for combat-zone drama, Zelensky showed up in Bakhmut, an eastern city under one of the most intensive Russian onslaughts in recent days. Russian forces were trying to encircle the city, 380 miles east of Kyiv, in their broader goal of seizing all of the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine.

Zelensky’s appearance was seen as another effort to boost morale. For the Russians, capturing Bakhmut would open a route for Russian forces to press on toward cities in the eastern region that remain in Ukrainian hands. Mercenaries from the Wagner Group, a shadowy paramilitary organization led by a Russian oligarch close to Russian President Vladimir Putin, are reported to be leading the Russian offensive in Bakhmut.

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