“It’s time to step out of the shadows to make strong decisions to act and not wait for November or any other months to descend,” Zelenskyy said in a pivotal address during a NATO summit, four months before an American election beset by new tumult following incumbent President Joe Biden’s shaky debate performance two weeks ago.

“We must be strong and uncompromising all together.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks at the Ronald Reagan Institute
Volodymyr Zelenskyy has said that the world must not wait for November’s presidential election in the United States to take action to repel Russia’s invasion. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

He added that the president of the United States must be “uncompromising in defending democracy, uncompromising against (Russian President Vladimir) Putin and his coterie”.

The visit to Washington was the latest in a series of trips for the Ukrainian leader, who has proven to be an adept navigator of international relations in defence of his war-ravaged country, publicly cajoling and sometimes loudly complaining to get the military assistance it needs to defend itself against Russia.

But, as he attends this week’s summit of NATO leaders in Washington, his most coveted prize — membership in the military alliance — remains elusive.

The European and North American countries making up NATO are in no hurry to admit Ukraine, especially while it is engaged in active hostilities with Russia that could drag them into a broader war.

Zelenskyy, who was feted as a champion of democracy in Washington in the aftermath of Russia’s 2022 invasion but was forced to plead his case for aid to US legislators just last year, found himself once again in the American capital as bridesmaid.

Gurneys are seen outside the Okhmatdyt children's hospital after it was hit by Russian missiles
Zelenskyy’s address came a day after Russia unleashed its heaviest bombardment of Kyiv in months. (AP Photo/Anton Shtuka)

At the NATO summit, he’ll be trying to navigate a tumultuous American political landscape as Biden tries to show his strength on the world stage and ability to keep leading the alliance’s most important member, even while fending off defections from fellow Democrats uneasy about his ability to lead the country for another four years.

A NATO sceptic, Trump has criticised allies for not hitting defence spending goals and raised concerns in Europe about continued US support for NATO and Ukraine. His Republican supporters in Congress were responsible for a monthslong delay in US military assistance, which allowed Russia to gain ground against Ukraine’s depleted forces.

The stakes for Zelenskyy have never been higher as he addressed a Reagan Institute audience that included some of the most senior congressional Republicans.

June 17

Ukraine defenders ‘bending but not breaking’ in fierce fighting

He got to Washington on Tuesday (Wednesday AEST), a day after Russia unleashed its heaviest bombardment of Kyiv in almost four months and one of the deadliest of the war, which levelled a wing of Ukraine’s biggest children’s hospital.

Against that backdrop, Zelenskyy, who will have a separate meeting with Biden on Thursday, again made an urgent appeal for additional air defences shortly after arriving in Washington, writing on the social media platform X that “We are fighting for more air defence systems for Ukraine, and I’m confident we will succeed”.

Hours before Zelenskyy’s Tuesday night address, Biden announced to great fanfare that the US and other NATO members would send dozens of air defence systems to Ukraine in the coming months, including at least four of the powerful Patriot systems it has been desperately seeking to help fight off Russian advances in the war.

President Joe Biden
Joe Biden said Ukraine will receive dozens of new air defence systems. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Speaking at an event celebrating the alliance’s 75th anniversary, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg urged the West to keep sending weapons and ammunition to Ukraine whatever the costs, saying the outcome of the war with Russia “will shape global security for decades to come”.

But an invitation to join the alliance is not in the cards even as Russia’s latest strikes have galvanised support for his country.

“We would like to see greater resolve in our partners and hear resolute responses to these attacks,” Zelenskyy said on Monday in Poland before flying to the US.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, meeting with Ukraine’s foreign minister on Tuesday, said the summit would further strengthen Ukraine’s ties to NATO and “its path to membership.” He noted the “despicable” Russian attack on the children’s hospital.

Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said the hospital strike “pretty much sets the agenda for today’s meeting”.

A man hauls a wheelchair with a girl in front of Okhmatdyt children's hospital hit by Russian missiles
The aftermath of the Russian missile strike on a children’s hospital. (AP Photo/Evgeniy Maloletka)

In the coming days, Zelenskyy will hear a chorus of support from countries that have poured weapons into his country, despite the recent damaging US and European lags in greenlighting more aid.

“It is critical that the world continues to stand with Ukraine at this important moment and that we not ignore Russian aggression,” Biden said in a statement late on Monday, saying that US support for Ukraine is “unshakeable”.

“Together with our allies, we will be announcing new measures to strengthen Ukraine’s air defences to help protect their cities and civilians from Russian strikes,” Biden said.

“The United States stands with the people of Ukraine.”

Chancellor Olaf Scholz of Germany, whose country is the second-richest in NATO, also expressed solidarity with Ukraine.

“Germany stands unwaveringly by the side of the Ukrainians, especially in these difficult times,” he said.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin said last week that the US would announce an additional $2.3 billion in security assistance for Ukraine, including anti-tank weapons, interceptors and munitions for Patriot and other air defence systems.

In a small first step as the summit kicked off Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said NATO allies would provide more than $7 million in personal protective gear, uniforms and boots specifically for female Ukrainian soldiers.

NATO leaders pose during a group photo
NATO leaders will once again stop short of offering a guaranteed timeline for Ukraine to enter the alliance. (AP)

However, the allies will once again stop short of offering a guaranteed timeline for Ukraine to enter NATO.

Instead, they will present Zelenskyy with what officials are calling a “bridge to membership” that is supposed to lay out specific tasks, including governmental, economic and rule-of-law reforms, that Ukraine must fulfil to join.

But meeting those steps won’t be enough — NATO will not admit a new member until the conflict with Russia is resolved.

Many in Ukraine see NATO membership as the only way to protect themselves from future Russian aggression in the event that the war ends.

But the yearslong duration of the conflict, which has cost thousands of Ukrainian lives, has left many frustrated and sceptical that their country will ever join the Western alliance.

While Zelenskyy has largely been a successful politician on the world stage, he struggles to maintain his popularity in Ukraine, which has decreased in part because of persistent questions about corruption, analysts say.

At home, Ukrainians not only are demanding from their leader an effective defence against Russia but they want to see their government reformed with reliable institutions and without corruption.

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