Volodymyr Zelensky with US President Joe Biden at St. Michael’s Monastery in Kyiv (via Reuters)
The most powerful man in the world has come to Ukraine with the message that American and Western support will continue until the end of this war in the heart of Europe.
The US secret services, together with the State Department, had not wanted Joe Biden’s visit to take place in Kiev, according to diplomats, for security reasons. They wanted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to meet him across the border in Poland, where the US president is currently on an official visit. President Biden, however, was determined to travel to the capital, and so the trip had to be arranged in hurried secrecy, including a train ride across the Polish border.
Areas in central Kiev were closed in the morning and a press blackout was imposed between government departments.
There were air raid sirens as Mr. Biden arrived on his ride to the capital, adding to a sense of drama and giving Mr. Biden a taste of what citizens across the country have been dealing with for nearly 12 months, as we reach the anniversary of the death of Vladimir Putin invasion. He solemnly began his visit by taking President Zelensky on a walk to the memorial, near the St. Michael Monastery, which honors Ukrainian soldiers who fell in the war.
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The US president’s visit came on the anniversary of the 2014 Maidan protests – the demonstrations that led to the overthrow of pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych – when a hundred people, the “Heavenly Hundred” as they are known , they were killed . President Putin’s response to the loss of his ally was to annex Crimea and send troops to eastern Ukraine, fomenting the conflict that led to the creation of the breakaway republics of Donetsk and Luhansk and sowing the seeds of ongoing war.
“It’s good to be back in Kiev,” Biden said, adding that this was his eighth visit to Ukraine. Many of his trips to the country have been as Vice President to Barack Obama, when he formed a close working relationship with the previous Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko. Donald Trump later sought to smear Biden’s reputation through his son Hunter Biden’s business interests in the country.
This was, however, Biden’s first visit as president, and the second thing he said – that the United States is “here to stay, we are not leaving” – was the note of reassurance he wanted to convey. He stressed that he was in Ukraine to underline “America’s unwavering and tireless commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty and territorial integrity.” He added: “When Putin launched his invasion of him nearly a year ago, he thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided. He thought he could survive us. But he was very wrong.”
President Biden’s surprise visit is the first time in modern history that a US leader has visited a war zone where there is no active US military presence. The White House said it had given the Kremlin advance notice of the visit.
Numerous international leaders have visited Kiev, including Boris Johnson when he was prime minister, his successor Rishi Sunak, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and Canadian and Italian Prime Ministers Justin Trudeau and Mario Draghi, as well as numerous leaders of leader of Eastern Europe and the Baltic.
However, Biden’s visit is seen by many as having the same symbolic significance as Harry S Truman’s trip to Europe in July 1945 at the end of World War II, arriving in Belgium on his way to Germany. But while President Truman met with Joseph Stalin, as well as British Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, at the Potsdam Conference in an effort to establish a peaceful future for the shattered continent, there is currently no prospect of a deal with President Putin.
This significance has not been lost on the residents of Kiev. Anastasia Rudenka, a 32-year-old teacher, said: “We heard rumors about her coming, but we didn’t believe them. Suppose the Russians feel something when he’s here? But he’s so good that he came, it will be really good for morale. I am also happy that he came on this Heavenly Heroes Day. Many people have suffered to establish democracy; we have to protect it.”
Front-line troops in Kharkiv and Luhansk – where Russia’s new offensives are expected to take place – told The Independent of their surprise and delight at the presidential visit, a boost as they try to defend against intense Russian artillery fire.
The press conference of the two leaders (AFP via Getty)
Vitalii Babko, a machine gunner from the 92nd Brigade fighting in Luhansk, said: “We didn’t get the news right away because we are on the front lines. All I can say is that Joe Biden is a very brave man doing this, not afraid to come to Ukraine. This is the most important support for the Ukrainian people.
“We hope it brought good news about guns. We need more advanced weapons and we need weapons to arrive fast. Things are going to be very difficult without this,” she added.
After meeting Mr. Biden at the Mariinsky Palace, shaking hands for the cameras against a backdrop of American and Ukrainian flags, President Zelensky said discussions with his counterpart involved delivering long-range missiles to Ukraine . This week President Biden announced a $500 million military package for Ukraine, including ammunition for American HIMARS missile launchers.
Major Oleksandr Osadchyi, deputy commander of the 226th “Cossack” battalion, which is stationed on the Kharkiv front line, said the visit “shows [the] trust and confidence that our main ally has in Ukraine, our country”.
President Biden, left, walks with President Zelensky during Monday’s visit (Reuters)
“It sends a very strong signal to Putin before the anniversary of the war. For the Ukrainian government and people, this is a powerful sign of the full support of the United States and an indication that the necessary weapons for the counteroffensive will arrive. We have months of fighting ahead,” he added.
At a press conference during the visit, President Biden recalled his conversation with President Zelensky the night before the invasion. “It was a year ago this week that we spoke on the phone, Mr. President,” he said. “Russian planes were in the air and tanks were crossing your border. The world was about to change, I remember it vividly. I asked you: ‘What can we do for you; How can I help?’ You said: “Gather the leaders of the world, ask them to support Ukraine.”
“I thought it was crucial that there be no question, absolutely none, of US support for Ukraine during the war. The Ukrainian people have stepped forward in a way that few people have ever done in the past.”
The US president insisted that there continues to be bipartisan support for Ukraine in Washington. “Despite all the disagreement we have in our Congress on some issues, there is significant agreement on support for Ukraine,” he said. “It’s not just about freedom in Ukraine. It is about the freedom of democracy in general. Mr. Biden also paid tribute to Mr. Zelensky’s “courage and leadership” in a message he wrote in the guest book at the Mariinsky Palace.
The two presidents walking the streets of Kiev (AFP via Getty)
President Zelensky called Biden’s visit “an extremely important sign of support for all Ukrainians”. He welcomed new sanctions due to be imposed on Russia this week and said the visit was a “clear signal that Russia has no chance” of winning the war and that the US and Ukraine are determined to “defend our cities and citizens together”.
In Kharkiv, a city that has suffered repeated and sustained Russian attacks, Ruslan Usmanov, a cyber consultant, is among many who believe Russia is preparing for more war, not peace. “There is concern that America and Europe may tire of this war and its cost,” he said. This [visit] it is very current, e [it’s] very, very good that President Biden has come to our country.
There are fears that the Kremlin is trying to replace pro-Western governments in Europe, such as in Moldova, where there are fears that a coup attempt is being planned. Demonstrations were held in the capital, Chisinau, and the country’s leader, Maia Sandu, said that Moscow intends “to use people from outside the country for violent actions”.
Putin will give his annual speech to Russian citizens in Moscow on Tuesday. This will be followed by a large rally on Wednesday, which he may attend. Russian troops are slowly gaining in eastern Ukraine but are said to be suffering huge losses in troops and equipment.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi arrived in Moscow amid US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s claims that Beijing is considering selling arms and munitions to Russia. Blinken warned that such a step would have “serious consequences” for Beijing. Russian newspaper Kommersant, however, said the trip was intended to propose a possible peace plan to end the war.
Mr. Zelensky also warned China against supporting Russia in its war against Ukraine and said doing so would lead to a world war.
“It is important for us that China does not support the Russian Federation in this war,” Zelensky told German newspaper Die Welt. “In fact, I wish he was on our side. At the moment, however, I don’t think it’s possible.”
“But I see an opportunity for China to make a pragmatic assessment of what’s happening here,” he added. “Because if China allies with Russia, there will be a world war, and I think China is aware of that.”