WASHINGTON (AP) — At a time of grave consequence, a wartime leader crossed the Atlantic to arrive at a White House decked in holiday decor to consult with the American president about a war in Europe.
The moment was Dec. 22, 1941, as British Prime Minister Winston Churchill landed near Washington to meet with President Franklin D. Roosevelt just weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Almost 81 years later to the day, the pageantry of that trip was echoed on Wednesday as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy arrived for a surprise visit with President Joe Biden and an address to Congress.
Zelenskyy is a changed leader since he last came to the White House more than a year ago, when Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine was still over history’s horizon. The former comedian was somber, even grim, in a black suit as he spoke about threats to his country’s security. Now perpetually dressed in army green fatigues, he evokes comparisons to Churchill for his fierce defense of a country facing an existential crisis.
His heightened stature on the world stage was reflected as soon as he entered the White House grounds, where he was greeted by a color guard lining the driveway on a brisk winter day. A red carpet was waiting for him, and Zelenskyy shook hands with Biden and first lady Jill Biden. Together, they posed for pictures before ducking into the building.
The two presidents walked to the Oval Office, where they sat in armchairs in front of a portrait of Roosevelt. There was a roaring fire in the fireplace and a Christmas garland draped over the mantle, giving the room a cozy holiday ambience despite the grim reason for the meeting.
Biden told Zelenskyy that the Ukrainian people “inspire the world” and said that “you are the man of the year in the United States of America,” referencing Zelenskyy’s recognition from Time magazine.
Zelenskyy, speaking in English, thanked Biden with “all my heart” for the American support. He presented Biden with a medal that had been awarded to the Ukrainian captain of a HIMARS battery, a rocket system provided by the U.S.
“He’s very brave, and he said, give it to a very brave president,” Zelenskyy said.
Biden called the gift “undeserved but much appreciated.”
The war in Ukraine is the largest conflict in Europe since World War II, but it’s often been discussed in abstract terms in Washington as officials debate how to help Ukraine.
Zelenskyy’s presence eliminated that distance, if only for the several hours that he spent here. At a news conference with Biden at the White House, he ruminated on the potential for a “just peace” when the war ends.
As a national leader, he said, he wants to protect the “sovereignty, freedom and territorial integrity of my country.” But he also wondered about parents who have lost children.
“The longer the war lasts, the longer this aggression lasts, there will be more parents that live for the sake of vengeance,” he said in Ukrainian.
He briefly struggled to find “the proper language” to describe the Russian invaders before settling on “these inhumans.”
Still in his brown boots, Zelenskyy toured the U.S. Capitol rotunda with legislative leaders and addressed a joint meeting of Congress. Some lawmakers wore the Ukrainian colors of blue and yellow.
Zelenskyy received a standing ovation, and appeared almost bashful when he began speaking.
“It’s too much for me,” he said.
Speaking again in English, Zelenskyy’s voice was gravelly and defiant as he insisted that Ukraine “will never surrender” in the face of Russia’s “primitive” tactics.
But the creases on his face betrayed fatigue from months of war and the whirlwind journey to Washington. He traveled under American protection, accompanied by the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine on a train to Poland. Then he was whisked to a U.S. government plane for the flight.
Security was tightened around the White House, with pedestrians barred from Pennsylvania Avenue. A privacy screen was erected at the entrance to Blair House, the traditional lodging for visiting dignitaries, to camouflage Zelenskyy when he arrived to prepare for his meeting with Biden.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., drew a connection between Zelenskyy and Churchill. Her father, Thomas D’Alesandro Jr., was a member of the House at the time of Churchill’s 1941 visit. The British leader addressed Congress on the day after Christmas.
“Eighty-one years later this week, it is particularly poignant for me to be present when another heroic leader addresses the Congress in a time of war — and with Democracy itself on the line,” Pelosi wrote in a letter to colleagues.
Ukraine has astounded the world with its ability to stave off the invasion, and it recently reclaimed some of its territory from Russian troops.
There are fresh concerns, however, about the future of a conflict approaching its second year. Russia has continued its aerial bombardment of Ukrainian cities, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said his country’s military would expand from 1 million to 1.5 million personnel.
At the end of his speech, Zelenskyy presented a Ukrainian flag, signed by soldiers near the front line, to Pelosi and Vice President Kamala Harris.
Pelosi returned the favor by gifting Zelenskyy a folded, framed American flag that had flown over the Capitol earlier in the day.
Zelenskyy held it aloft, then carried it with him, lawmakers patting him on the back as he rushed toward the exit, headed back to war.
Associated Press writer Hanna Arhirova in Kyiv contributed to this report. Farnoush Amiri, Darlene Superville and Matthew Lee in Washington also contributed.