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 touched down at Joint Base Andrews just outside the capital for a surprise visit with President Joe Biden and an address to Congress.
Zelenskyy arrived in Washington as a changed leader since he last visited the White House more than a year ago, when Russia’s bloody invasion of Ukraine was still in 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, 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, Zelenskyy, dressed in his trademark army green fatigues, was greeted by 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 roaring fire. A portrait of Roosevelt hung above the mantle, which was draped with a Christmas garland.
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.”
A senior administration official said Biden and Zelenskyy discussed the possibility of a visit to Washington during a phone call on Dec. 11. The official, who discussed planning for the trip on condition of anonymity, said the invitation was formally extended on Dec. 14.
Zelenskyy traveled under American protection. He was accompanied by the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine on a train to Poland and then he was whisked to a U.S. government plane for the flight to Washington.
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.
The war in Ukraine is the largest conflict in Europe since World War II.
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.
The day before leaving for Washington, Zelenskyy visited Bakhmut, a city on the front line in the country’s east.
He accepted a blue and yellow Ukrainian flag and suggested he would deliver it in Washington.
“We are not in an easy situation. The enemy is increasing its army,” Zelenskyy said in a video released by his office. “Our people are braver and need more powerful weapons. We will pass it on from the boys to the Congress, to the president of the United States. We are grateful for their support, but it is not enough. It is a hint — it is not enough.”
Some Ukrainians cheered Zelenskyy’s trip.
“I am proud of our president,” said Hanna Danylovych, 43, who expressed hope that U.S. assistance would extend to offensive weapons.
“There is a great desire and dream to speed up the removal of Russian evil from our land,” she said.
Associated Press writers Hanna Arhirova in Kyiv and Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.