A Massachusetts lawmaker joined House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on a surprise trip Saturday to Kyiv, Ukraine, where they met secretly with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky for over three hours, pledging billions of dollars more in military support.
Representative Jim McGovern, chair of the House Rules Committee, joined just three other lawmakers who made the trip with Pelosi as part of the first congressional delegation to visit the battered country.
Security measures for the dangerous visit were so tight that McGovern said he did not even tell his wife he would be going. Just days ago, Russian missiles hit the city while UN Secretary-General António Guterres was visiting.
McGovern described the discussion with Zelensky as “intense,” with the Ukrainian president pausing a detailed discussion of the aid he needed for the war effort to field calls from soldiers.
“There was not a lot of chit chat,” McGovern said in an interview with the Globe from Poland on Sunday. “It was very focused on detail and policy and talking about the needs that Ukraine has and again making sure that the US is firmly committed to helping them get through this.”
Pelosi is the highest-ranking US official to travel to Ukraine, now in its third month fighting off Russian forces who are attempting to seize large swaths of territory in the south and east after failing to capture Kyiv. The trip comes as President Biden has asked Congress to allocate another $33 billion for Ukraine and just a week after Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Kyiv.
Congress approved more than $13 billion for weapons and humanitarian support for Ukraine in a bipartisan vote earlier in March, but there are signs this additional package could face a tougher road. The White House has pushed for the Ukraine aid to be paired with billions in COVID-19 relief funds that many Republicans oppose. No Republicans joined the trip, although some were invited.
Lawmakers vowed the United States’ continuing support. “Our commitment is to be there for you until the fight is done,” Pelosi told Zelensky during the meeting, according to a video released by the Ukrainian president afterward that shows him wearing his usual hoodie and military-style pants greeting the members of Congress, who were wearing suits.
Zelensky thanked the American people and Biden for the bipartisan military support the country has provided Ukraine—but also pressed them to do more. While the US has sent a significant amount of weapons, Ukraine remains outgunned by Russia.
At a press conference in Rzeszow, Poland, after the meeting, Pelosi praised Zelensky for having a “dazzling” command of detail on Ukraine’s war effort, saying he dove into specifics on weaponry and other aspects of the war.
“It was a remarkable master class of leadership on the part of Mr. Zelensky,” Pelosi said.
Neither Pelosi nor McGovern elaborated on Zelensky’s exact requests during the meeting, but McGovern said they were specific and related to weapons and additional sanctions he believed would help repel Russia’s invasion.
“We have to make sure the Ukrainians have what they need to win,” Representative Jason Crow of Colorado, another member of the delegation, told reporters. “What we have seen in the last two months is their ferocity, their intense pride, their ability to fight, and their ability to win if they have the support to do so.”
The chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Representative Gregory Meeks of New York, added that the United States would work to impose even more sanctions on Moscow.
Pelosi dismissed concerns that sending additional aid could be seen as an escalation by Russia and prompt Russian President Vladimir Putin to retaliate against the United States.
“If they’re making threats you cannot back down,” Pelosi said. “You cannot fold to a bully.”
Delegation members also called for Putin to be held accountable for the war crimes that have been committed. Bill Keating of Massachusetts, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees and who joined the delegation in Poland, said humanitarian leaders told him of “horrors” taking place, including the systematic rape of women by Russian soldiers that Ukraine’s ombudswoman for human rights, Lyudmyla Denisova, has warned about.
McGovern, whose wife has Ukrainian heritage, said Zelensky expressed gratitude for America’s support and understood that the backing extends beyond the government and to the American people, including students in McGovern’s district who are selling homemade jewelry and cookies to raise money for displaced Ukrainians.
But the visit of Pelosi, who as speaker is second in line to the presidency, after the vice president, was especially meaningful, he said.
“The fact that she herself made this journey I think it meant a great deal to President Zelensky,” McGovern said. “He clearly was grateful that we were all there.”
The delegation is slated to meet with Polish President Andrzej Duda on Monday, before returning to Washington. Pelosi spoke with Biden on Sunday about the meeting, a White House official said.
Зустріч зі спікером Палати представників Конгресу США @SpeakerPelosi в Києві. Сполучені Штати є лідером потужної підтримки України в боротьбі з агресією РФ. Дякуємо, що допомагаєте захищати суверенітет і територіальну цілісність нашої держави! pic.twitter.com/QXSBPFoGQh— Володимир Зеленський (@ZelenskyyUa) May 1, 2022
McGovern said he came away feeling inspired by the meeting, despite the brutality Ukraine faces.
“He is absolutely determined to prevail. He’s absolutely determined to win this,” McGovern said of Zelensky. “I found that hopeful.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated Representative Bill Keating participated in the Zelensky meeting. He joined the delegation in Poland.
Follow her on Twitter @lizcgoodwin.