President Biden took a nearly 10-hour train ride from the border of Poland to show his administration’s “unwavering support” nearly a year into Russia’s invasion.
By Marc Santora, Peter Baker and Michael D. Shear
Feb. 20, 2023
The New York Times
President Biden made a surprise trip to the embattled capital of Ukraine on Monday, traveling under a cloak of secrecy into a war zone to demonstrate what he called America’s “unwavering support” of the effort to beat back Russian forces nearly a year after they invaded the country.
Mr. Biden arrived early Monday morning to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the two stepped out into the streets of Kyiv even as an air-raid siren sounded, a dramatic moment that underscored the investment the United States has made in Ukraine’s independence.
“One year later, Kyiv stands,” Mr. Biden declared at Mr. Zelensky’s side in Mariinsky Palace, the gilded ceremonial home of the Ukrainian president. “And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands.”
“Thank you so much for coming, Mr. President, at a huge moment for Ukraine,” Mr. Zelensky said.
Mr. Biden promised to release another $500 million in military aid in coming days, mentioning artillery ammunition, Javelin missiles and Howitzers, but he did not talk about the advanced arms that Ukraine has sought. Mr. Zelensky told reporters that he and the president spoke about “long range weapons and the weapons that may still be supplied to Ukraine even though they weren’t supplied before.”
Mr. Biden joined Mr. Zelensky for a visit to St. Michael’s monastery in downtown Kyiv, where the sun glittered off the golden domes as the air-raid alarm wailed. Trailing two soldiers bearing a wreath, the two leaders walked along the Wall of Remembrance, with portraits of more than 4,500 soldiers who have died since Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and first fomented a rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
The air-raid alarm had stopped by the time Mr. Biden got back into his motorcade and departed the monastery. The alarms sound almost daily in Kyiv, but the blare of the siren added to the bristling tension of the moment. Ukrainian officials have been warning that Russia was planning a large-scale missile bombardment to be timed to the anniversary of the war on Friday.
The alarm on Monday morning was triggered by a Russian MIG fighter jet taking off in Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the north. A missile from a MIG fired from Belarus can hit a target in Kyiv in under 20 minutes.
The White House alerted Russian officials that Mr. Biden would be traveling to Kyiv several hours before he arrived in Ukraine, in an effort to “deconflict” with Russian military forces operating in the country, Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, told reporters on Monday.
Mr. Biden had already been scheduled to arrive in Warsaw on Tuesday morning for a two-day visit, and White House officials had repeatedly brushed off questions about whether he might also travel to Ukraine. The White House on Sunday night issued a public schedule for Monday showing the president still in Washington and leaving in the evening for Warsaw, when he was already half a world away.
But the president has made American support for Ukraine the centerpiece of his argument for a revitalized alliance in Europe, and he had told advisers that he wanted to mark the anniversary of the invasion as a way of reassuring allies that his administration remained committed.
Mr. Sullivan said that Mr. Biden made a final decision to go to Ukraine during a huddle with top advisers and security officials in the Oval Office on Friday. Planning for the president’s highly secretive mission to the country had been underway for months, but knowledge about the trip was highly limited, even within the White House and the Pentagon.
Mr. Biden slipped out of Washington in the dark of night without notice. Air Force One took off at 4:15 a.m. on Sunday East Coast time. Just a few reporters, sworn to secrecy and deprived of their telephones, were brought with him, along with Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser; Jen O’Malley Dillon, his deputy chief of staff; and Annie Tomasini, the director of Oval Office operations.
The reporters traveling with him were allowed to send a pool report to other journalists only after his arrival and were not permitted to further describe how he traveled to Kyiv while he was still in the country. An American official, who asked not to be identified, confirmed that after a trans-Atlantic flight to Poland, Mr. Biden crossed the border by train, traveling for nearly 10 hours to Kyiv, as other American officials have in recent months because flying into a war zone is unsafe. He was to leave on a similar train trip and then, after crossing the border, head to Warsaw.
Mr. Sullivan said the White House would provide more detail, including the modes of transportation that Mr. Biden used, in the days ahead, but cited ongoing concerns about the president’s security in declining to say more.
He described the president’s visit to Kyiv as “not a celebration but an affirmation of commitment, of the resilience of the Ukrainian people.” He said the president decided that sending that message was worth the risk of traveling to a country at war, where the United States has no troops on the ground and only a very small diplomatic presence.
It was an arduous journey for an 80-year-old president, who nonetheless appeared energized by the opportunity to come in person. Wearing a blue suit with a blue and yellow striped tie, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, Mr. Biden arrived in Kyiv at 8 a.m. local time. “It’s good to be back in Kyiv,” he told Ambassador Bridget A. Brink, who was waiting for him.
He took a motorcade through streets that had been cleared of any local traffic to Mariinsky Palace, where he was greeted by Mr. Zelensky, wearing his signature black sweatshirt with dark green pants and beige boots.
“Thank you for coming,” Mr. Zelensky said, shaking Mr. Biden’s hand.
Asked by a reporter about his goal for the trip, Mr. Biden said it was to show that the United States was “here to stay,” adding, “We’re not leaving.”
During a meeting inside the palace, Mr. Zelensky thanked Mr. Biden again. “I really appreciate that President Biden, American society, have been from the very beginning” of the war “together with us,” he said.
There was speculation swirling on social media all morning about a possible visit as police closed streets and Ukrainian officials hinted that an important dignitary was arriving. Crowds gathered at barricades erected outside St. Michael’s in the hopes of catching a glimpse of what was happening.
Mr. Biden arrived in Kyiv at a pivotal moment of the war, both at home and abroad. Some of America’s staunchest allies have pressed Ukraine to begin negotiating a peace deal that might involve giving up territory to Russia. And in the United States, some Republican lawmakers have demanded an end to what they call “a blank check” for the war effort.
A new Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll last week found public support for aid to Ukraine softening, with 48 percent of Americans in favor of sending arms, down from 60 percent last May. Mr. Biden sought to reassure Ukrainians: “For all the disagreement we have in our Congress on some issues, there is significant agreement on support for Ukraine.”
On Tuesday morning, Mr. Biden is scheduled to meet with President Andrzej Duda of Poland, and later that afternoon he will deliver a speech from the Warsaw Castle. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is expected to speak the same day, creating a split-screen image of the two leaders making their separate arguments about the war.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned into a long, brutal slog, with Ukrainian forces — backed by the United States and other Western allies — putting up a fierce fight. But Mr. Putin’s forces, bolstered by an army of private soldiers conscripted into service, have begun a fresh assault on those positions as Russia continues its practice of bombarding civilian infrastructure in cities across Ukraine.
Russia’s state media quickly started using Mr. Biden’s visit as evidence of the Kremlin’s claim that the West is waging a proxy war against Russia. “We’re not at war with Ukraine, certainly not with the Ukrainian people,” the RIA Novosti news agency quoted an analyst as saying. “The Kyiv authorities embody an instrument of the collective West.”
Mr. Biden’s visit to Kyiv recalled the secret missions flown by Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump to Iraq and Afghanistan during the height of the wars in those countries. But bringing a president into Ukraine without the sort of American troop presence that was on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, much less control of the airspace, presented a security challenge of a vastly different magnitude. American warplanes were spotted flying over Poland near the border, but officials said they did not enter Ukrainian airspace.
Mr. Zelensky made his own high-profile visit to Washington just before Christmas Day last year, his first trip outside Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion, as he pleaded with Western leaders to provide more support. Like Mr. Biden’s trip to Ukraine, Mr. Zelensky’s visit was kept secret until the eve of his arrival for security reasons.
Two days after Mr. Zelensky’s speech, Congress approved nearly $50 billion in additional emergency aid for Ukraine, much of it military equipment aimed at allowing the country to fight back against Russia. That pushed the total amount of U.S. aid approved for Ukraine since the war started past $100 billion.
Initially, Mr. Biden and his top aides were reluctant to use the money to provide Ukraine with the most advanced weapons systems, capable of being used to attack deep into Russian territory. Mr. Biden remains opposed to supplying U.S. fighter jets, but his resistance to sending other equipment has lessened.
“Believe me, Joe Biden’s visit is strategic,” Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to Mr. Zelensky, said in a statement. “A lot of issues are being resolved and those that have been stuck will be sped up. Our common goal is the victory of Ukraine over Russia and the triumph of Ukrainian soldiers and Western weapons.”
Marc Santora is the International News Editor based in London, focusing on breaking news events. He was previously the Bureau Chief for East and Central Europe based in Warsaw. He has also reported extensively from Iraq and Africa. @MarcSantoraNYT
Peter Baker is the chief White House correspondent and has covered the last five presidents for The Times and The Washington Post. He is the author of seven books, most recently “The
Divider: Trump in the White House, 2017-2021,” with Susan Glasser. @peterbakernyt • Facebook
Michael D. Shear is a veteran White House correspondent and two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who was a member of team that won the Public Service Medal for Covid coverage in 2020. He is the co-author of “Border Wars: Inside Trump’s Assault on Immigration.” @shearm