Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is visiting Washington. It is his first trip abroad since war broke out in his country at the end of February. Foreign journalist Maarten Rabaey explains the importance of Zelensky’s journey.
Why is this the first time Zelensky has left Ukraine since the February invasion?
“Until now, for security reasons, it was impossible to leave the country. The fact that he is going now is only possible because the US gave rock-hard security guarantees.”
So is he not at risk?
“A trip abroad is always a risk for the president of a country at war. First, there are always security risks for Zelensky personally when he moves. But there is also a risk that Russia will use its absence to suddenly intensify its offensive.”
Why does he go to Washington of all places?
“This is a way of bringing the conflict closer to home for Americans. When Zelensky is in the US, they can see that that’s not just a man in a khaki uniform on a battlefield far away.
“That is also the explanation for the timing of this visit: from January the House of Representatives will be in Republican hands. There has been a fear for some time that the Republicans, and certainly the Trumpists within that party, will be difficult about additional support for Ukraine. He must now try to convince those Republicans.
“Zelensky has been asking for additional military support in recent weeks, and US President Joe Biden has already pledged that support. So Zelensky has already received guarantees for a Christmas gift of $ 1.85 billion (1.74 billion euros) to security support.
“That includes the Patriot defense system. This is one of the most powerful defense systems in the world, which will help the Ukrainians in the coming months to protect their civilian infrastructure, which has come under heavy fire in recent weeks.
“It is important that Zelensky comes to Washington to explain what Ukraine will do with that money. Another $45 billion aid package is pending in Congress (42 billion euros) for Ukraine on the table. This is not only about military aid, but also about humanitarian aid.
“Even by American standards, that is a huge amount. Then it is somewhere normal that Zelensky personally comes to justify that support.”
Who will help whom with this visit?
“It works in two directions. Biden supports Zelensky, and strengthens Zelensky’s position internationally. He also shows that he is willing to go a long way together with Ukraine. Conversely, Zelensky supports Biden domestically, as Biden will face a critical Republican-majority House next year. I think Biden is making a smart move with this.”
What is the symbolic importance of this trip?
“You can see that both camps are trying to strengthen their alliances. Putin was just visiting Belarus with Lukashenko, Zelensky is now going to Biden.
“This is also a signal from Biden to Putin: ‘Don’t be under any illusions, we will continue to support Ukraine. Zelensky is our man, no matter what. It’s not because there’s a different majority here in the House next year that we’ll drop him.” That is an important message to Putin, who has been hoping for some time that support from the West will erode.”
Will Zelensky visit other allies in the near future?
“That remains the question. If Zelensky stops anywhere, it’s more likely to be London or Warsaw. After the United States, these are the allies who have most supported Ukraine. The United Kingdom on a military level, and Poland, as a neighboring country, has also received many refugees.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Zelensky turns up sooner or later in Brussels at the European Union. Although the question is whether that will be possible in the short term.”