© Reuters. Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visits Ukrainian service members at their position in the frontline town of Bakhmut, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in Donetsk region, Ukraine December 20, 2022. Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via RE
By Tom Balmforth and Pavel Polityuk
WASHINGTON/KYIV (Reuters) -Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy was en route to the United States on Wednesday to meet President Joe Biden, address Congress and seek “weapons, weapons and more weapons” in his first overseas trip 300 days since Russia invaded his country.
Zelenskiy said the visit was aimed at strengthening Ukraine’s “resilience and defence capabilities” amid repeated Russian attacks on energy and water supplies in the dead of winter.
Air-raid sirens blared across Ukraine on Wednesday, officials said, but there was no immediate word of a new wave of attacks.
Presidential political adviser Mykhailo Podolyak said Zelenskiy’s U.S. visit showed the high degree of trust between the two countries and offered him the opportunity to explain what weapons Kyiv needs.
“This finally puts an end to the attempts by the Russian side … to prove an allegedly growing cooling in our bilateral relations,” Podolyak told Reuters.
“This, of course, is not even close. The United States unequivocally supports Ukraine.
Biden will announce nearly $2 billion in further military assistance for Ukraine that will include a Patriot missile battery to help it defend itself against barrages of Russian missiles, a senior U.S. official said.
“…Weapons, weapons and more weapons. It is important to personally explain why we need certain types of weapons,” Podolyak said. “In particular, armoured vehicles, the latest missile defence systems and long-range missiles.”
Zelenskiy’s visit was expected to last several hours.
He will meet Biden and top national security aides at the White House, participate in a joint news conference with the U.S. president and then go to Capitol Hill to address a joint session of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24 with the aim of capturing Kyiv in days, a goal that quickly proved out of reach. Russian President Vladimir Putin casts what he calls Russia’s “special military operation” to “denazify” Ukraine as the moment Moscow finally stood up to the West seeking to capitalize on the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union by destroying Russia.
Thousands of troops and civilians have since been killed, millions have been forced to flee their homes and entire cities have been turned to ruins.
Biden will be face-to-face with the man he has spoken with regularly over the past 10 months but not met in person since the war broke out. He will not use the talks to push Zelenskiy towards the negotiating table with Putin, the U.S. official said.
The Kremlin said on Wednesday it saw no chance of peace talks with Kyiv. In a call with reporters, spokesman Dmitry Peskov said that continued Western arms supplies to Ukraine would lead to a “deepening” of the conflict.
The Biden administration has provided about $20 billion in military assistance to Ukraine, including artillery ammunition, munitions for NASAMS air defence systems and for high mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS).
Zelenskiy has repeatedly called on the West to supply more weaponry.
On Tuesday, he made a surprise trip to the eastern frontline city of Bakhmut, his office said, underlining the importance of its defence against Russia’s stuttering but persistent attempts to capture it.
In his nightly video address, Zelenskiy called it a trip to “Fortress Bakhmut” in Donetsk, a province Russia claimed in September. Most countries reject Russia’s claim as an illegal occupation.
Dressed in combat khaki, Zelenskiy handed out medals to soldiers in a tumble-down industrial complex to applause, video released by his office showed.
In contrast, Putin awarded medals in the comfort of the Kremlin to the Russian-appointed leaders of four regions of Ukraine that Russia claims to have annexed.
Video footage released on Ukrinform TV, part of Ukraine’s state news agency, showed servicemen in Bakhmut handing Zelenskiy a Ukrainian flag with their signatures on it.
“We will turn it over to the Congress and to the U.S. president from the guys,” Zelenskiy said in the video. “We are grateful for the support. But it’s not enough,” he added.
Putin on Tuesday acknowledged problems for Russian forces in parts of Ukraine, including what Russia calls the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics in the east.
Ukraine’s Luhansk regional military administration said Russian mining had slowed down Ukrainian forces in the area.
“The most difficult direction along the entire frontline is Bakhmut,” it said on Telegram. “Russians set a goal to win at least some victory there.”
The U.S. Senate has advanced a government-funding bill that includes $44.9 billion in emergency assistance to Ukraine and NATO allies. The money would be used for military training, equipment, logistics and intelligence support, as well as for replenishing U.S. equipment sent to Ukraine.
The World Bank on Tuesday said it had approved an additional financing package for Ukraine totalling $610 million to address urgent relief and recovery needs.