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Background Press Call on the Upcoming Visit of President Zelenskyy of Ukraine

  • Politics

Via Teleconference

(December 20, 2022)

6:38 P.M. EST

MODERATOR: Good evening, everyone. And thank you for joining tonight’s call. This is [moderator]. To kick things off, I just wanted to go over the ground rules really quickly. The contents of this call and everything we are about to discuss is under embargo until further notice.

When we are able to lift the embargo, I will send everyone who RSVP’d an email letting you know that the contents are now reportable. For planning purposes, we are not expecting that to be for at least several hours. Thank you again for your understanding, and we appreciate everyone’s flexibility.

As many of you may have guessed, tonight’s call is about President Zelenskyy’s visit to the White House tomorrow.

For your awareness and not for your reporting, our speaker tonight is [senior administration official].

[Senior administration official], I’ll turn it over to you for some opening remarks. And after that, I’ll moderate the Q&A

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, [moderator]. And thanks, everybody.

I’m glad to intrude on your evening with what I think is a pretty exciting piece of news, which is that at President Biden’s invitation, President Zelenskyy will be visiting Washington, D.C., tomorrow and will have the opportunity to engage here at the White House and then go up to Capitol Hill. And in doing so, this visit will underscore the United States’ enduring commitment to Ukraine.

President Biden and President Zelenskyy discussed the visit of President Zelenskyy to Washington when they spoke on the phone on December 11th. And the White House formally invited President Zelenskyy to come tomorrow, Wednesday the 21st, last Wednesday the 14th. And in doing so, indicated that we wanted to host him for a program here at the White House that would involve an extended sit-down with President Biden, a meeting with key members of President Biden’s national security team and Cabinet, an opportunity to address the press, and then an opportunity to go up to Capitol Hill to do a joint session of Congress.

The Ukrainian side — President Zelenskyy’s office formally accepted the invitation last Friday. And then the visit was finally confirmed on Sunday, just three days ago, at which point the White House engaged with the Speaker’s office to notify them that President Zelenskyy would be traveling here and that they could work to coordinate together with the White House and President Zelenskyy the joint session that will be scheduled for tomorrow evening.

We’ll have more details to share on the schedule soon. But again, just a quick overview: President Biden will first welcome President Zelenskyy at the White House for bilateral meetings. There will be the press conference and the opportunity to address members of the public. And then there will be an address by President Zelenskyy to a joint session of Congress demonstrating the strong bipartisan support for Ukraine. And then President Zelenskyy will return, after just a few short hours on the ground, to his people in Ukraine.

We’re looking forward to having President Zelenskyy back at the White House for his second visit but his first visit since the start of Russia’s brutal war against Ukraine. It’s something we’ve wanted to do for some time. And tomorrow is actually the 300th day since Russia brutally invaded Ukraine in an all-out assault with the goal of wiping its neighbor off the map and subjecting the Ukrainian people to Russian dominion.

Russia expected that this war would be quick work, that they would be in Kyiv and dominating the country within a matter of days. But here we are 300 days later, and Ukraine stands, Kyiv stands, the Ukrainian people stand. And Ukraine, in fact, has been pushing back against Russian aggression, reclaiming territory over the course of the past several weeks and months.

Of course, in response to that, Russia has begun a barbaric campaign of attacking Ukraine’s critical infrastructure — purposely destroying power, heat, and electricity — in an attempt to break the will of the Ukrainian people and cause human suffering. But Ukraine’s government and its people remain unbreakable, and they’ve inspired the world with their resilience.

It’s been simply remarkable to watch how Ukraine, aided by U.S. support and the support of our allies and partners, has bravely defended its country, repelled Russian attacks, and retaken a significant amount of their territory.

In the meeting tomorrow, President Biden will have the opportunity with President Zelenskyy to have an in-depth strategic discussion on the way ahead on the battlefield; on the capabilities and training that the U.S. and our allies will continue to provide to Ukraine; on the sanctions and export controls that we have imposed and will continue to tighten and reinforce that have placed significant costs on Russia’s economy and Russia’s defense industrial base; and on the economic and energy sector assistance as well as the humanitarian assistance we’re providing to make life better for the people of Ukraine.

Over the course of the past 300 days, President Biden has rallied the world to stand up for freedom and democracy and to stand with Ukraine as they’ve defended themselves from Russia’s brutal war. We’ve organized a coalition of more than 50 countries who are providing military assistance to help Ukraine defend its country. We’ve provided economic assistance to make sure the Ukrainian government can keep providing basic services to the Ukrainian people. We’ve provided humanitarian assistance to help support the millions of Ukrainians who have been forced to flee their homes because of Putin’s war.

And President Biden will have the opportunity to reinforce that this support is not just about what we have done before, but what we will do today and what we will continue to do for as long as it takes.

And unfortunately, because Russia has shown no interest in being willing to end this brutal war, just as they were unwilling to engage in good-faith diplomatic efforts to avert this conflict in the first place, we know that in the days ahead the conflict will continue, the winter will be hard, and we will continue day in, day out to provide critical support to the Ukrainian people.

In fact, tomorrow, President Biden will announce a significant new package of nearly $2 billion of security assistance for Ukraine. It will contain a very important new capability: a Patriot missile battery, which will be a critical asset to defend the Ukrainian people against Russia’s barbaric attacks on Ukraine’s critical infrastructure. We will train Ukrainian forces on how to operate the Patriot missile battery in a third country. This will take some time, but Ukrainian troops will take that training back to their country to operate this battery.

And we will continue to prioritize other forms of air defense support as well, including NASAMS, HAWKs, Stingers, and counter-UAV equipment.

On the course of this visit, we will also have the opportunity, along with Congress, to mark the work to pass a significant package of additional funding for Ukraine for 2023. And we anticipate a bipartisan package of more than $40 billion of funding for Ukraine.

President Biden will continue to rally the world as we work to maintain the remarkable unity we’ve demonstrated over 2022. And as I said, he will reinforce the fundamental message on this trip to President Zelenskyy directly, to the Ukrainian people, the American people, and the world publicly that the United States will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes and that in doing so, that support will remain broad, deep, and bipartisan.

And with that, I’d be happy to take your questions.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you so much, [senior administration official]. First, we’ll go to Aamer Madhani from the Associated Press.

Q Thanks, [senior administration official]. Could you talk a little bit about why now is an okay time for President Zelenskyy to leave Ukraine and visit, and if President Biden has any thoughts about visiting there soon?

And then, secondly, how much of this visit is also about the President sending a message to the next Republican-led Congress about the need for the U.S. to keep the aid to Ukraine flowing as this war goes on, perhaps beyond even the next $45 billion that you hope to send? Thank you.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks. With respect to the first question, of course there’s no mathematical formula for the right day for President Zelenskyy to make his first trip out of the country. And, of course, I would defer to him to speak to his decision-making about why he felt this would be a good time.

But in his discussion with President Biden, what the two of them agreed upon was that having the opportunity for them to sit down together and for President Zelenskyy to be able to come to the United States to thank the American people for the incredible support that they’ve received — and to thank both parties, to thank the bipartisan support that he’s received –would be an important injection of momentum and sustenance to American and Allied support for the months ahead and for as long as it takes.

And so, as the year draws to a close, as we head deeper into winter, as we continue to provide Ukraine the capabilities it needs on the battlefield, as we continue to surge diplomatic support and solidarity to Ukraine, this moment felt like a good opportunity for them to be able to have this engagement — this personal face-to-face engagement — and for President Zelenskyy to have this opportunity to address the American people.

President Zelenskyy has indicated he’s very keen — was very keen to make his first visit to the United States to be able to send this message.

But again, I’ll — I won’t say more than that and let him speak for himself.

In terms of the question of the timing as it relates to the new Congress, I’ve said before and I’ll reiterate here, as many others here at the White House have, that we have been confident all along that despite some rumors and suggestions to the contrary, support for Ukraine would remain broad, deep, and bipartisan. I think the vote that you will see on this substantial aid package demonstrates that, and I think the support you will see for President Zelenskyy at the joint session tomorrow demonstrates that as well.

So, this isn’t about sending a message to a particular political party. This is about sending a message to Putin and sending a message to the world that America will be there for Ukraine for as long as it takes.

And President Putin badly miscalculated the beginning of this conflict when he presumed that the Ukrainian people would yield and that NATO would be disunited. He was wrong on both those counts; he remains wrong about our staying power. And that’s what this visit will demonstrate.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you. And then, just because I’ve gotten a few emails of people asking about the embargo because they joined late, I just want to remind everyone that the contents of this call are under embargo until further notice. When we’re able to lift the embargo, I will send to everyone who RSVP’d an email letting you know that the contents are now reportable. And just for your planning purposes, we are not expecting that to be for at least several hours.

With that, we’ll go to our next question, which is Steve Holland from Reuters.

Q Hey. Thank you. [Senior administration official], will the President feel Zelenskyy out on the possibility for a diplomatic end to the war?

And secondly, what — are you expecting the war to stretch well into the new year? What — what’s your anticipation on that front?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: On the second question, Russia could, of course, end the war tomorrow by pulling out of Ukraine. They show no intention of doing so and no intention of seriously sitting down to commit to doing so. So, we do not see diplomacy that would lead to an end to the war on just terms as being on the very near-term horizon.

President Biden has been absolutely clear from the start, even before the start of this war, that his principle is “Nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine”; that he is not going to pressure or push Zelenskyy to the negotiating table, but rather, he is going to work with Congress and with our allies to put Ukraine in the best possible position on the battlefield so that when the time is ripe, they are in the best possible position at the negotiating table.

And they will discuss every element of this conflict, including the situation on the battlefield and including the question of where the war goes from here. And I won’t say more than that today because I think it’s very important for them to have the opportunity to discuss it.

But what I will reinforce is that the President is not coming with a message that is about pushing or prodding or poking Zelenskyy in any way. This is going to be a message of solidarity and support, coordination and alignment, and making sure that we are very much putting Ukraine in the best possible position to defend its interests and secure its objectives.

MODERATOR: Thank you. For our next question, we’ll go to Asma Khalid from NPR.

Q Hi there. Thanks. Can you all hear me?

MODERATOR: Yes, we can.

Q Hi. [Senior administration official], could you speak at all to the risk assessment in Zelenskyy flying here at this particular moment and your confidence that, presumably, Russia will not take drastic actions while he is out of the country?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Well, Russia has been taking drastic action on a near daily basis in Ukraine, trying to plunge the entire country into cold and dark as we head into the dead of winter — rolling over towns and villages, wantonly killing civilians, bombing hospitals, maternity wards, you name it. And I think we can expect the same in the days ahead.

So Russia has shown no signs of abating its widespread and barbaric attacks against Ukrainian cities and towns, Ukrainian civilians, Ukrainian critical infrastructure.

We had the opportunity to consult closely with President Zelenskyy on the security parameters of him being able to depart the country, come to the United States for a brief period, and return.

Of course, it ultimately was his decision to make. He concluded that those security parameters were — you know, met what he needed. We agreed with that, and so we are executing accordingly.

And, you know, Russia will continue to do what Russia does, and we will continue to do what we do, and that is to not be deterred from our support for Ukraine and for us and Zelenskyy to not be deterred to travel as he sees fit to advance his people’s interests and his country’s interests.

And I would point out that, just this morning, he traveled to the town of Bakhmut in the east, which is very close to the frontlines in the east. He has previously traveled to other areas right out there on the frontlines. And he makes his own determinations about that travel based on what he believes is best going to deliver for his people.

He made the same calculus when it comes to coming to the United States. He feels this is something that is going to aid the fight for Ukraine. And we are determined to ensure that it aids the fight in Ukraine by projecting a strong message of unity and resolve from the White House, from Washington, from the free world, on behalf of all of the nations supporting Ukraine. That’s what we intend to do tomorrow.

MODERATOR: Thank you. For our next question, we’ll go to Peter Alexander with NBC News.

Q I appreciate you hosting this, [senior administration official]. If you could walk us through a little bit of the timetable of what we should anticipate tomorrow — acknowledging this will come out as part of the embargo: when you’re hoping this will happen over the course of the day; when the joint address would take place; anyone with whom he’s traveling tomorrow. Is the First Lady of Ukraine traveling with him or any other key individuals?

And in terms of his travel here, is the U.S. — is he traveling in any form with U.S. transport? Appreciate any more details as to the specific timeline relates to tomorrow’s
plans.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Peter, great questions all. I’m going to defer the delegation question to the Ukrainians, and they will speak to that when they come out.

On timing, I will — what I will say is that this is going to be afternoon into evening, is what we anticipate. But I’m not going to say anything further than that.

And then on the rest of the questions around the details of what you’re looking for, we will try to get you that information tomorrow once he’s here. But I’m — at this point, I’m not at liberty to share.

MODERATOR: Thank you. And, Peter, and for everyone out there, we will have an email — updated email late tonight with some updated daily guidance for everyone with timing as well. So you’ll be able to go into tomorrow morning knowing exactly the timing.

For our next question, we’ll go to Michael Shear from the New York Times.

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Hey, [senior administration official]. Thanks. I wonder if you could talk a little bit to the message that the President — President Biden — wants to send to the American people with this visit. He’s obviously been — he’s obviously been very direct about the fact that, from a timing standpoint, there’s no — you know, he’s going to stick with this for “as long as it takes,” I think is what he said. But he’s also, in the past and certainly at the beginning, put limits on U.S. participation in the war in Ukraine — no boots on the ground and the like.

Is there any — is there any sense in which this should suggest to the American people that that — those kinds of limits are changing and that he might tell Zelenskyy that the U.S. is willing to be more deeply involved than he had, sort of, suggested to the American people in the past?

SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: No. The President has been very clear from the beginning. He hasn’t wavered from and he won’t waver from it tomorrow, or next month or next year, that the United States is not sending forces to Ukraine to directly fight the Russians. What we are sending instead is billions — now, tens of billions of dollars’ worth of military equipment and supplies, sophisticated weaponry to help Ukrainians defend themselves.

And I noted with respect to his announcement on the Patriot battery tomorrow — as to that, we will train Ukrainians in a third country to operate that battery. Once trained, they will go in with the battery to man it in Ukraine; it won’t be U.S. personnel who are doing that. And nothing will change in that regard.

The President has been very clear that we are going to lean forward and be robust in our support for Ukraine on the military, economic, energy, and humanitarian fronts, but we are not seeking to engage in a direct war with Russia. And nothing about that will change tomorrow.

What tomorrow is about is an opportunity to reinforce to the American people that thanks chiefly to the bravery of the Ukrainian people, but also thanks to the support that the American people have provided, Kyiv stands, Kharkiv stands, Kherson stands as proud Ukrainian cities that have resisted Russian conquest, and that Ukraine as a nation is standing proud and tall and pushing back against Russian aggression. And what we are doing to help support Ukraine is helping to secure these victories.

And he is going to reinforce that the key now for us to demonstrate, not just through words but through resources and through the support we are actively giving, is that we will stand by Ukraine, stand with Ukraine for — as the question said, as I’ve said, as President has said — as long as it takes.

So this is a message of resolve. It’s a message of conviction that we are doing the right thing here. And it’s a message of support for the President of Ukraine and his people at this critical hour, at this moment as we head deeper into winter, where they deserve to know that America is standing with them, and they deserve to know that the world is standing with them.

MODERATOR: Great, thank you. And I believe [senior administration official] has to run, so I just want to say thank you, everyone, for joining this call on short notice. And thank you, [senior administration official], for taking the time.

As a reminder of the parameters of this call, it was held on background, attributable to a “senior administration official.”

Again, I will email everyone who RSVP’d with a note letting you know when the embargo is lifted and the contents of this call will be reportable. For your planning purposes, again, I would not expect that for at least several hours, but we’ll keep everyone posted.

I’m more than happy to answer any other logistical questions that anyone has offline.

Again, we will be sending out a daily guidance email — the White House press team will be — late tonight. So everyone will be able to wake up tomorrow morning knowing exactly what time they should expect what.

With that, thank you again for joining the call tonight, and I appreciate your flexibility and understanding.

7:02 P.M. EST

Source: White House