Volodymyr Zelensky is flattered. The president of Ukraine is not a dreaded dictator. Ukraine is neither a G20 nation nor a NATO member. Ukraine is not a part of the European Union as well. Yet, Mr Zelensky’s wartime visit to the United States on 21 December did set off a storm, while earning him great love and admiration, and sophisticated military hardware for Ukraine.

This was his first outing since Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine on 24 February, remarkably, in his trademark militaristic attire. The ensemble includes crewneck, cargo pants and hard boots, a typical battlefield garb. Since the onset of the war, the olive-green sweatshirt, with the Ukrainian trident at the throat, has been his uniform. The attire is a metaphor for determination and a source of inspiration for many today.

Airlifted and Not Visiting

The uniform is quite unusual for a visiting dignitary, who arrive in de rigueur dark suits and ties. ‘Visiting’ is a misnomer, ‘airlifted’ is the word. Mr Zelensky was moved on a safe train to Ukraine’s border with Poland and militarily airlifted to America to meet US president Joe Biden. How Mr Zelensky was brought to America tells volumes on the strategic importance of his visit.

Admiration for Mr Zelensky runs so high in America, he addressed a 25-minute joint session of both the chambers of Congress, only the 12th in 10 years. Mr Zelensky was seeking America’s financial support and high-end arms to combat the illegal aggressor. Despite a few murmurs here and there, he got most of them. This was not the visit’s lone high point. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/12/21/us/politics/zelenskyspeech-transcript.html

Success Amid War Sirens

The red on the carpets rolled out for Mr Zelensky at the White House and in the Congress was brighter than the red in the flare-ups in Ukraine’s bombed cities. To cap the red carpets, Mr Zelensky and Ukrainians were described as tall inspirations. At once, Mr Biden turned the eulogies into more air defence systems and additional USD 1.85 bn security aid for Ukraine.

More than the money, Biden’s “America will stay with Ukraine for as long as it takes” assurance worked wonders for Mr Zelensky’s morale. Viewed through this prism, Mr Zelensky’s  mission to America, amidst war sirens at home, is a blasting success. Such was the goodwill earned, Mr Zelensky is sure Ukraine will get more assistance now when requested again. The commitment was evident in Mr Biden’s heartfelt words. https://www.defense.gov/News/Releases/Release/Article/3252782/185-billion-in-additional-security-assistance-for-ukraine/

The Optics of a Heart-Wrencher

More indication was available when Mr Zelensky was received by the Congress with a standing ovation. There were many more. The ovations were followed by his rousing speech in English, which hit a poignant chord among US lawmakers. Mr Zelensky thanked them for Ukraine being alive. He evoked the American revolution and the World War II to say final victory is Ukraine’s.

Mr Zelensky’s speech had the power of a heart-wrencher. He told the Congress he was coming to America after his visit to the Bakhmut frontline in Donbas. Stirring up emotions further, he gifted the Congress the Ukrainian flag signed by his soldiers. Moved, the Congress presented him with the star-spangled American flag. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/worldnews/2022/12/22/bakhmut-soldier-asked-deliver-flag-uscongress-zelensky-reveals/

Entreats and Earnest Assurances

The highest point in Mr Zelensky’s address came when he impressed upon the Congress the American aid to Ukraine is “an investment” for global peace and security. He told the Congress Ukraine uses American aid responsibly. The Congress had nothing to suspect Ukraine wouldn’t. The country’s past record was before them as proof and Mr Zelensky’s words were dripping with obsessive honesty.

To date, America’s aid to Ukraine totals USD 50 bn – USD 23 bn for defence and USD 27 bn for other needs. Plus, the US has given Ukraine advanced arms and ammunition, armoured vehicles and anti-aircraft missiles. The Congress is set to okay, without ado, an additional aid of over USD 44 bn to cover budgetary deficits. https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF12040#:~:text=FY2022%20and%20FY2023%20appropriations%20include,Security%20Assistance%20Initiative%20(USAI%3B%20P.L.

Despite Far-Right Isolationists

There is an irritant to this approval. Post-legislative election, the House of Representatives will pass into the hands of the Republicans in January 2023. Though democrats have no issues with aid to Ukraine, a few bellicose republicans like Kevin McCarthy are up in arms against ‘blank-cheque’ aid to Ukraine. https://www.wsj.com/livecoverage/ukraine-zelensky-bidencongress-washington-trip-russia/card/some-house-republicanspush-back-against-zelensky-visit-and-ukraine-aidqoP6o3TjY5QmDZ3z4xpr

Undaunted by these far-right isolationists, a few of them though, Mr Biden unveiled his new military package for Ukraine. This includes kits for turning Ukraine’s unguided bombs into precision-guided Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAMs), besides the top-line Patriot missile defence systems to help Ukraine down Russian cruise and ballistic missiles, which have been destroying its power grid.

The Give-Me-More Pitch

Yet, Mr Zelensky wants more. He is asking for long-range army tactical missile systems, aka ATACMS. These are rockets needed for HIMARS, as Russia has been blunting HIMAR attacks by moving ammunition storages back behind front lines. Yet, Mr Biden is not agreeing to give these systems as he harbours real fears over how they will be used by Ukraine in do-or-die situations. https://asc.army.mil/web/portfolio-item/atacms/  

To elaborate, the long-range missile system’s range is so long it could penetrate deeper into Russia. This will be viewed by Kremlin as a dangerous provocation and escalation. If Ukraine uses these missiles to strike Russia this way, Mr Biden fears it is expanding the war to NATO. The possibility is too scary. Thus, Biden’s strict no to ATACMS for Ukraine.

Shaping American Attitudes

Long-range rockets apart, Mr Biden has held back the US Abrams tanks and the F-16 fighter jets Ukraine had asked for. Mr Zelensky wants these to make recapture of Russia-occupied territories possible. Despite president Biden being wary, the American visit of Mr Zelensky and the huge reception that followed him at every stop may take Ukraine closer to getting them tomorrow. Perhaps with a few riders, friendly to Ukraine. https://www.washingtonpost.com/nationalsecurity/2022/12/23/ukraine-weapons-biden/

Mr Zelensky’s presence in Washington DC improves this possibility in fact. As his visit is shaping American attitudes towards aid to Ukraine, a new urgency has been created. Plus, Mr Zelensky, a former comedian, has been leveraging his showman skills to impress upon US politicians the need to save Ukraine from its aggressor. Sure, these are Mr Zelensky’s assets. https://poliphoon.com/the-zelensky-weapon-of-wit/

Avoiding Serious Politicisation

The US visit was Mr Zelensky’s moment to display his assets in person and send clear global messages. He did not fritter it away. He used it to confirm America and Ukraine are strategic partners, while president Biden exploited the moment to prove his deep personal involvement with Ukraine. These equations will ensure ‘blank cheques’ continue to drop in.

This is a confidence-inspiring thought as the Ukraine war is set to enter its second year soon and control of the House is poised to pass on to the Republicans. The US visit has given Mr Zelensky an opportunity to avoid serious politicisation of aid to Ukraine. He was able to do this by describing the war in person, in evocative and emotional terms, and his act was flawless. https://edition.cnn.com/2022/12/21/politics/zelensky-bidenwashington-visit-ukraine-russia-war/index.html

In Conclusion

No doubt, Mr Zelensky convinced American lawmakers the Ukraine war is above their dirty domestic politics. As Mr Putin revels in weaponising the winter, he is sure to step up his attacks on Ukrainian civil targets in a bid to cripple power grids providing heat and light to Ukrainian homes. Mr Zelensky’s apolitical American visit underwrites this immediate risk now. Sure, it is a visit not gone in vain.