President Joe Biden made a surprise visit Monday to Ukraine to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a gesture of solidarity that was kept secret until the last minute and that comes days before the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of the country.
Biden gave a speech and met with Zelensky at Mariinsky Palace to announce an additional half-billion dollars in U.S. assistance and pledged continued American and allied support for the embattled nation.
“One year later, Kyiv stands," the president said. "And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands. The Americans stand with you, and the world stands with you."
To keep him secure, the president's trip inside Ukraine was kept secret, even from most of the White House press pool, until the president was inside the country.
Only two journalists were allowed to travel with him from start to finish: First, a 4:15 AM departure on a plane concealed inside a darkened hangar at Maryland's Air Force base, a flight into Germany to refuel and then another short one into Poland, and finally a 10-hour train ride to Kyiv.
Those journalists were "sworn to secrecy," according to the print journalist assigned to detail the trip for the press corps. They received instructions about the trip via email on Saturday, with a deceptive subject line: “Arrival instructions for the golf tourney.”
Biden later took the train out of Ukraine and back into the Poland, another 10-hour trip. His public schedule Monday had instead shown a previously-announced trip from Washington to Poland, with several official events expected Tuesday.
It was the first time in modern history that a president had visited an active war zone in which the United States does not have a military presence.
The U.S. military does not have a presence in Ukraine other than a small detachment of Marines guarding the embassy in Kyiv, making Biden’s visit more complicated than other recent visits by prior U.S. leaders to war zones.
The trip marked Biden’s first visit to a war zone as president. His recent predecessors, Donald Trump, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, made surprise visits to Afghanistan and Iraq during their presidencies to meet U.S. troops and those countries’ leaders.
The president's visit comes at a crucial time: Biden is trying to keep allies unified in their support for Ukraine as the war is expected to intensify with spring offensives. Sure enough, as Biden was visiting the country, Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida announced a new $5.5 billion financial aid package for Ukraine, as well as a commitment to host an online Group of Seven summit with Zelenskyy.
In Kyiv, Biden announced an additional half-billion dollars in U.S. assistance — on top of the more than $50 billion already provided — for shells for howitzers, anti-tank missiles, air surveillance radars and other aid but no new advanced weaponry. Zelenskyy is pushing allies to speed up delivery of promised weapon systems and calling on the West to provide fighter jets — something that Biden has declined to do.
Zelenskyy thanked Biden for visiting the country "at a huge moment for Ukraine."
"This conversation brings us closer to the victory," Zelenskyy said, praising their negotiations as "very important and crucial."
White House National Security Adviser Sullivan would not detail any potential new capabilities for Ukraine, but said there was a ”good discussion” of the subject.
Zelenskyy's wife, Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska, hailed Biden's visit as a sign that Ukraine "is closer to victory."
"Extremely pleased to meet @POTUS in Kyiv, where sirens are still heard — but I believe that soon there will be a peaceful sky all over Ukraine," she wrote on Twitter, adding: "Together we will win!"
Biden’s mission with his visit to Kyiv — and then Warsaw — is to underscore that the United States is prepared to stick with Ukraine “as long as it takes” to repel Russian forces even as public opinion polling suggests that U.S. and allied support for providing weaponry and direct economic assistance has started to soften. For Zelenskyy, the symbolism of having the U.S. president stand side by side with him on Ukrainian land as the anniversary nears is no small thing as he prods the U.S. and European allies to provide more advanced weaponry and to step up the pace of delivery.
The visit also gave Biden an opportunity to get a firsthand look at the devastation the Russian invasion has caused on Ukraine. Thousands of Ukrainian troops and civilians have been killed, millions of refugees have fled the war, and Ukraine has suffered tens of billions of dollars of infrastructure damage.
Air raid sirens rang out over the city as he and Zelenskyy were exiting the gold-domed St. Michael’s Cathedral, which they visited together. Looking solemn, they continued unperturbed as they laid a wreath and held a moment of silence at the Wall of Remembrance honoring Ukrainian soldiers killed since 2014.
Biden took time Monday to pen a note to Zelenskyy in a guest book at the presidential palace, writing that he was "honored to be welcomed again in Kyiv to stand in solidarity and friendship with the freedom loving people of Ukraine."
"Please accept my deepest respect for your courage and leadership," Biden wrote to Zelenskyy, adding: "Slava Ukraini!", a rallying cry which means "Glory to Ukraine!"
The White House would not go into specifics, but Sullivan said that it notified Moscow of Biden’s visit to Kyiv "some hours" before his departure from Washington “for deconfliction purposes” in an effort to avoid any miscalculation that could bring the two nuclear-armed nations into direct conflict.
The trip was a forceful rebuke against Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had hoped his military would swiftly overrun Kyiv within days. A year later, the Ukrainian capital stands and a semblance of normalcy has returned to the city as the fighting has concentrated in the country’s east, punctuated by cruise missile and drone attacks against military and civilian infrastructure.
Biden on Monday declared that "Putin's war of conquest is failing."
"Putin thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided," the president said. "He thought he could outlast us. I don’t think he’s thinking that right now."
"[Putin has] just been plain wrong," Biden added. "One year later, the evidence is right here in this room. We stand here together."
In his remarks, Biden recalled how he spoke to Zelenskyy as the invasion was beginning one year ago.
"Russian planes were in the air and tanks were going across your border," Biden said of the setting of their call. “You told me that you could hear explosions in the background. I’ll never forget that. The world was about to change."
“You said that you didn’t know when we’d be able to speak again," the president said. "That dark night one year ago, the world was literally at the time bracing for the fall of Kyiv, perhaps even the end of Ukraine.”
"One year later, Kyiv stands, and Ukraine stands," Biden declared. "The Americans stand with you and the world stands with you."
Biden, wearing a blue suit and at times his signature aviator sunglasses, told Zelenskyy the U.S. will stand with him “for as long as it takes.” Zelenskyy responded in English: “We’ll do it.”
The Ukrainian leader, wearing a black sweatshirt, as has become his wartime habit, said through an interpreter that Biden’s visit “brings us closer to the victory,” this year, he hoped. He expressed gratitude to Americans and “all those who cherish freedom.”
While Biden was in Ukraine, U.S. surveillance planes, including E-3 Sentry airborne radar and an electronic RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft, were keeping watch over Kyiv from Polish airspace.
Speculation has been building for weeks that Biden would visit Ukraine around the Feb. 24 anniversary of the Russian invasion. But the White House repeatedly had said that no presidential trip to Ukraine was planned, even after the Poland visit was announced.
Since early morning on Monday many main streets and central blocks in Kyiv were cordoned off without any official explanation. Later people started sharing videos of long motorcades of cars driving along the streets where the access was restricted.