WASHINGTON—During his White House press conference alongside the American President on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tried to crack a joke and failed, but inadvertently revealed how much he and Joe Biden were in lockstep about Russia.
After a reporter asked what would happen after new battery of cutting-edge U.S. Patriot air-defense missiles arrives in Ukraine, Zelensky, who had stood stony faced for most of the press conference, made a prediction. “What will happen?” Zelensky asked. “We will ask for more Patriots.”
Biden smiled, looked down and shook his head. “We are working on it,” he said. Zelensky, who made his name in Ukraine as a movie producer and comedian, put his hand out, apologized, and said “That is a laugh line.” Biden chuckled in a way that made clear his response hadn’t been part of the joke.
The moment spoke to the easy rapport Biden and Zelensky had built earlier that day over two hours sitting face to face in the Oval Office, while at the same time, pointed at the central question of the moment about the U.S. support for Ukraine: how far will it go?
Zelensky’s star turn in Washington—which includes a White House meeting and a prime-time address to a joint session of Congress—comes just as Republicans are about to take back control of the House, and key Republican leaders, including the likely new Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, have promised to take a harder look at the money the U.S. is sending to prop up Ukraine’s hammered economy.
Read more: Zelensky Is TIME’s Person of the Year
The Ukrainian military has taken back large swaths of land Russian forces blitzed through in February, but major parts of Ukraine’s east and south remain in Russian hands, and Russia has escalated its missile assaults, destroying heating and water infrastructure across the country with coldest winter months about to set in.
It is with that backdrop that Biden has invited Zelensky onto the main stage, as a way to signal to Russian President Vladimir Putin, as well as America’s allies and House Republicans critical of the US role in the conflict, that Biden doesn’t see an expiration date on U.S. support for Ukraine. “The American people are with you every step of the way,” Biden told Zelensky at the press conference in the East Room of the White House.
“And we will stay as long as it takes.” he added.
In addition to the Patriot missiles, Biden announced an additional $1.85 billion in military equipment and security assistance. At the same time, Congress is expected to include $44.9 billion in emergency security and economic assistance for Ukraine in a massive $1.7 trillion spending package that has to pass in the coming days to prevent a government shutdown.
When the two leaders met earlier in the Oval Office, Zelensky presented Biden with a medal that had been awarded to an officer commanding a High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) rocket launcher battery on the front lines. The Ukrainian officer, a captain, had told Zelensky to give the medal to Biden. “He said give it to the very brave President,” Zelensky said. Biden was visibly touched, and read the soldiers name, saying he would write to him. “Undeserved but much appreciated. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.”
During the press conference, another reporter noted that the U.S. was incrementally increasing its shipments of military equipment to Ukraine. The reporter asked Biden why he didn’t and doesn’t just “make a long story short” and give the Ukranians everything they need to retake their territory now. Biden pointed to Zelensky, and cracked, “His answer’s yes.” Zelensky smiled and said, “I agree.” Biden then said that the U.S. had been investing in Ukrainian military systems going back to before Russia started rolling tanks toward Kyiv. “We’ve given Ukraine what they needed when they needed it to defend themselves,” Biden said. “There’s an entire alliance, and the idea that we would give the kind of material that is fundamentally different than what is already going there, that would bring the prospect of breaking up NATO and breaking up the European Union and the rest of the world.” U.S. allies, Biden said, are “not looking to go to war with Russia and not looking for a third world war.”
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