Deep secrecy, high risk: How Zelensky got to D.C.

When a U.S. military aircraft landed on the tarmac in Rzeszow, Poland, on Tuesday, the plane crew thought they were picking up the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and a few high-level Ukrainian officials.

What they didn’t know, until they saw him exit a U.S. vehicle, was that one of those officials was Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who with American help had just completed a dangerous trip from Bakhmut — the site of some of the war’s bloodiest fighting, more than 400 miles from Kyiv — to the Polish border for a covertly planned visit to Washington.

The top-secret planning around Zelensky’s departure underscored the uniquely perilous nature of a visit by a wartime leader who faces daily risks to his life — a top Russian goal, after all, is to destroy the government he heads. But given the astronomical stakes, he and President Biden were eager to meet face-to face, and Zelensky was willing to brave the risks of leaving his country for the first time since the Russian invasion began in February.

Just three days before Zelensky was set to land in Washington, White House officials alerted a small group of congressional leaders — including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) — so they could arrange for him to make an address to a joint meeting of Congress during his 9 1/2 hours in the United States.

This account is based on interviews with 10 White House and other administration officials, congressional aides, outside experts and others involved in the planning, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations and sensitive details.

Zelensky used his brief encounters with Biden and lawmakers on Wednesday to argue that Ukraine is capable of winning the war outright — something U.S. officials privately say is highly unlikely. And the trip, coming two weeks before Republicans wary of sending more aid to Ukraine take control of the House, was also an effort to shore up support among skeptical lawmakers and other Americans before a brutal winter of fighting.

“His very presence is a reminder of how dangerous it is to discount the power of the idea of Ukraine,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who attended Zelensky’s speech to Congress. “His country was supposed to fall within days. He was supposed to be dead if he stayed in Kyiv. So his words were effective, but just the image of Zelensky in the Congress a year after the invasion by itself sends this really powerful, unavoidable message.”

As to whether the Ukrainian president achieved his goals, Murphy said, “I do think the speech makes it more likely that Republicans that are on the fence won’t join the anti-Ukraine crowd. Right now, I think we have support in the House to keep Ukraine funding, and Zelensky’s visit helps with that.”

Zelensky had made clear to Biden for several months that he wanted to make the United States his first visit outside Ukraine, U.S. officials said, but the security situation in Ukraine made such a trip nearly impossible until this month.

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