President Joe Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv on Monday, arriving in Ukraine’s capital in a show of support for the war-torn nation and statement of defiance ahead of the one-year anniversary of the war Russia launched.
Biden arrived at 8 a.m. local time and the presidential motorcade drove to Mariinsky Palace, where he was met by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his wife.
“Thank you for coming,” Zelenskyy said. Biden asked about the Ukrainian leader’s kids and then said that the purpose of his visit was to signal the United States was “not leaving” Kyiv during the conflict.
“I thought it was critical that there not be any doubt, none whatsoever, about U.S. support for Ukraine in the war,” Biden said during a joint address with Zelenskyy.
The shock appearance happened under immense secrecy, with Biden taking off from Joint Base Andrews at 4:15 am local time. U.S. officials had expressed concerns that Biden couldn’t fly into Ukraine or take a ten-hour train ride without immense risk to the host nation or himself. Ensuring the president’s safety was a near-impossible endeavor, those officials said, though they acknowledged Biden had long wanted to go Kyiv. Hours in advance of the trip, U.S. officials notified their Russian counterparts that the president would be going for the purposes of “deconfliction.” They did not detail how the Russians responded.
“This was a risk that Joe Biden wanted to take,” said Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director. “It’s important to him to show up even when it’s hard, and he directed his team to make it happen, no matter how challenging the logistics. He wanted to stand shoulder to shoulder with President Zelenskyy and remind the world as we approach the one year anniversary of the invasion that Kviv still stands.”
All told, Biden remained on the ground roughly five hours, visiting the embassy and walking the streets of Ukraine’s beleaguered capital — the same city Russia tried to seize 12 months ago — and meeting with Zelenskyy. It was his eighth trip to Kyiv. This time, he was flanked by a handful of staffers, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan. “Each time more significant,” Biden said.
As the two men toured Kyiv, air raid sirens went off in the Ukrainian capital. Sullivan says Biden met with Zelenskyy one-on-one after an initial greeting and met with the Ukrainian leader’s top aides. “They spent time talking about the coming months, in terms of the battlefield and what Ukraine needs in terms of capabilities to be able to succeed on the battlefield,” said Sullivan.
The message of the visit was unambiguous: Ukraine is safe enough for an American president to visit despite the missile strikes, drone attacks and trench warfare initiated by Vladimir Putin.
In a statement after his arrival, Biden said that Putin “thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided. He thought he could outlast us. But he was dead wrong.”
In the address with Zelenskyy, the U.S. president announced a new, half-billion dollar weapons package that will include artillery ammunition and anti-armor systems like Howitzers and Javelins, as well as sanctions “against elites and companies that are trying to evade or backfill Russia’s war machine.”
Zelenskyy, who has been pushing for the West to send longer-range missiles to hit faraway Russian positions inside Ukraine, said those long-range missiles are under discussion.
He thanked Biden for visiting in “the most difficult time” for Ukraine and said the two leaders held a wide discussion with their teams.
“This conversation brings us closer to the victory,” Zelenskyy said. “Today our negotiations were very fruitful … They were very important and crucial.”
Zelenskyy also said he looked forward to conversations with Biden about “what we have to do to stop the war, to have success in this war … and how to win this year.”
Biden had been under immense pressure to visit Kyiv from Republicans, Democrats and foreign counterparts. Zelenskyy has received multiple sitting European leaders and American lawmakers, making Biden’s absence more conspicuous with each passing month. A scheduled trip to Poland to mark the one-year anniversary of the war provided the White House with the opportunity to make the covert trip.
Reports started to circulate ahead of the visit that Biden was on his way as security preparations became obvious in and around the Ukrainian capital. U.S. military jets were seen circling near the Polish border and Kyiv residents posted videos on social media of lockdowns in the city center and near the U.S. Embassy.
The trip to Europe was designed to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the war, with Biden set to denounce Putin’s incursion and publicly declare that the United States will support Ukraine until the final moments of the conflict. His physical presence in Kyiv could be one of the enduring legacies of his war-anniversary trip.
It’s unclear how or if Putin will retaliate. There is already widespread fear that he would mark the one-year anniversary on Feb. 24 with a show of force, such as by ordering a larger barrage of missile strikes on Ukraine.
Following his stop, Biden is set to fly to Warsaw where he’ll deliver a speech Tuesday to celebrate Ukraine’s remarkable resistance and the West’s collective defense of the targeted country. It’s a reprise of his address in Poland last year about how the United States aimed to partner with allies to help Ukraine. The most memorable line of the speech, however, was what appeared then to be a call for regime change in Russia: “For God’s sake,” he said, “this man cannot remain in power.”
Veronika Melkozerova contributed to this report from Kyiv.
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