By Steve Holland and Nandita Bose
WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden welcomed Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskiy to the White House on Wednesday with renewed assurances of American support for Ukraine’s defense against a Russian onslaught.
«Thank you first of all,» Zelenskiy told Biden in a meeting in the Oval Office, having arrived at the White House’s South Lawn in a black Chevrolet with tinted windows and wearing his trademark olive green sweater and cargo pants.
«It’s a great honor to be here.»
Biden wore a blue suit and a blue and yellow striped tie, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
The Ukrainian president, who said he had wanted to come to the United States earlier, offered his appreciation to Biden, the U.S. Congress and ordinary Americans for their support since Russia invaded his country in late February.
He gave Biden the Ukrainian cross for military merit, offered by a captain of a HIMARS rocket unit it had been awarded to.
The U.S.-supplied HIMARS rocket systems have proven to be pivotal to the Ukrainian offensives in August that drove the Russians out of Kharkiv and then Kherson last month, bolstering Ukraine’s strategy of hitting Russian command-and-control nodes, logistics routes and ammunition dumps.
The White House said the officer met Zelenskiy in Bakhmut, an eastern Ukrainian frontline city, earlier this week and asked him to give his medal to Biden as a token of his gratitude.
The officer also wrote Biden a letter expressing Ukraine’s appreciation for America’s assistance that helped keep many people in Ukraine alive, according to the White House.
«Well, undeserved but appreciated,» Biden said, as he accepted the medal from Zelenskiy, promising to give the Ukrainian captain a command coin from a U.S. battlefield in Iraq, where his late son Beau had fought.
The White House said Biden later handed two command coins to Zelenskiy, one for the captain and one for the Ukrainian president.
Biden also pledged to strengthen Ukraine’s air defense. «That’s why we’re going to be providing Ukraine with a Patriot missile battery and training your forces to be able to accurately use it,» he said.
«You are the man of the year,» Biden told Zelenskiy of Time Magazine’s decision to put him on its cover.
(Reporting by Steve Holland, Nandita Bose; Doina Chiacu and Jonathan Landay; Editing by Sandra Maler, Jonathan Oatis and Grant McCool)