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Ukraine President Zelenskyy To Meet With Biden At The White House

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, is in Washington for his first meeting with President Biden this Wednesday. As NPR's Charles Maynes reports from Moscow, the embattled Ukrainian leader is hoping to keep the U.S. focused on his country's confrontation with Russia.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelenskyy's path to the presidency would seem odd in most countries, except maybe the U.S.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SERVANT OF THE PEOPLE")

VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (As Vasyl Petrovych Holoborodko, speaking Russian).

MAYNES: An actor who became famous for playing a Ukrainian president on TV, Zelenskyy won the real thing in a landslide in 2019.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZELENSKYY: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MAYNES: His victory drew comparisons to - and later, an infamous phone call from - reality TV star-turned-president Donald Trump, with Zelenskyy even joking about the matter during their lone meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. later that year.

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ZELENSKYY: It's better to be on TV than by phone...

DONALD TRUMP: Yeah.

ZELENSKYY: ...I think.

(LAUGHTER)

MAYNES: But President Biden is no stranger to the messy world of Ukrainian politics either. In the Obama years, then Vice President Biden oversaw U.S. policy in Ukraine, even making an appearance before the parliament.

Dr. Hanna Shelest of the Foreign Policy Council Ukrainian Prism says that with that experience comes a deep understanding of the view from Kyiv.

HANNA SHELEST: Honestly, the only expectations we had were that he knows the topic. He doesn't need a long preparation or explanations. That is good. So it saved us a lot of time.

MAYNES: To talk about issues like Nord Stream 2, the nearly completed pipeline project that bypasses Ukraine to provide Russian gas direct to Germany - Biden overturned Trump-era objections to the deal in a bid to rebuild frayed relations with Berlin. But despite assurances from the U.S. and Germany that Russia would face sanctions should it abuse the agreement, Zelenskyy insists Europe is placing itself at the mercy of Moscow.

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ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) We regard this project solely through the prism of security. We consider it a dangerous geopolitical weapon of the Kremlin.

MAYNES: It's been seven years since Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine and launched a proxy war in the country's east that's killed some 14,000 people. Zelenskyy wants Ukraine to join NATO, though some in the West argued that would only provoke further Russian aggression. Biden has played cool on the idea, providing Ukraine some U.S. military training and weaponry while urging Kyiv to make further democratic reforms.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: The fact is they still have to clean up corruption. The fact is they have to meet other criteria to get into the action plan. And so it's - you know, school's out on that question.

MAYNES: In a recent interview with a Russian newspaper, the secretary of Russia's Security Council, Nikolai Patrushev, argued that in the wake of the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan, America's abandonment of Ukraine was just a matter of time. It's a concern some in Kyiv have as well.

VLADIMIR FESENKO: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Analyst Vladimir Fesenko says recent events in Afghanistan show Ukrainians that U.S. partnerships aren't always made to last. But he also sees a key difference. Unlike the Afghan National Army, Fesenko says, Ukrainians have put up a fierce defense of their sovereignty.

FESENKO: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: "We're realists. We don't expect the U.S. to fight for us," he says, "even if we join NATO." Many in Moscow feel it was a massive military buildup by Russian forces along Ukraine's border last spring that led to Biden calling for a June summit meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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VLADIMIR PUTIN: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: And after the talks, Putin suggested he and Biden had come to an understanding of each side's red lines. Defining them may prove a new and perhaps crucial test of Biden's support for Ukraine as he attempts to put the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan behind him and show U.S. alliances still mean something to both friends and adversaries alike.

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE AMERICAN DOLLAR'S "PATH OF TOTALITY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.