KANSAS CITY, Mo. – President Joe Biden made an unannounced visit to Ukraine on Monday to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in a gesture of solidarity that comes just days before the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of the country.
Speaking alongside Zelensky at the Mariinsky Palace, Biden recalled fears nearly a year ago that invading Russian forces could quickly take the Ukrainian capital. “One year later, Kiev stands up,” Biden said, pointing his finger for emphasis at his podium decorated with the flags of the United States and Ukraine. “And Ukraine resists. Democracy stands. Americans are with you and the world is with you.
The visit to Ukraine comes at a crucial time in the war as Biden seeks to keep allies united in their support for Ukraine as the war is expected to escalate with both sides preparing for spring offensives. Zelensky is lobbying allies to speed up the delivery of promised weapons systems and is asking the West to deliver fighter jets to Ukraine, something Biden has to date refused to do.
In Kiev, Biden announced an additional half-billion dollars in US assistance, including shells for howitzers, anti-tank missiles, air surveillance radar and other aid, but no new advanced weaponry.
Zelenskyy said he and Biden had talked about “long-range weapons and the weapons that could still be supplied to Ukraine even if they hadn’t been supplied before.” But he did not specify new commitments.
Biden also got a first-hand glimpse of the terror Ukrainians have lived with for nearly a year, as air raid sirens howled over the capital just as he and Zelenskyy were exiting the gold-domed St. visited together. Looking solemn, they continued unabashed as they laid a wreath and held a moment of silence at the Wall of Remembrance honoring Ukrainian soldiers killed since 2014.
Biden’s mission with his visit to Kiev, which precedes a planned trip to Warsaw, Poland, is to underline that the United States is ready to stay with Ukraine “for as long as necessary” to push back Russian forces although public opinion polls suggest that US and allied support for arms supplies and direct economic assistance has begun to fade. For Zelenskyy, the symbolism of having the US president alongside him on Ukrainian soil as the anniversary approaches is no small feat as he pushes US and European allies to deliver more advanced weapons and accelerate the pace of delivery.
“I thought it was crucial that there be no question, absolutely none, of US support for Ukraine in the war,” Biden said.
Biden’s visit marked an act of defiance against Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had hoped his military would quickly overrun Kiev within days. A year later, the Ukrainian capital was back on its feet and a semblance of normalcy returned to the city, as fighting concentrated in the east of the country, punctuated by cruise missile and drone attacks on military and civilian infrastructure.
Biden has warned that the “brutal and unjust war” is far from won. “The cost to Ukraine has been extraordinarily high. And the sacrifices were too great,” Biden said. “We know there will be very difficult days, weeks and years ahead. But Russia’s goal was to wipe Ukraine off the map. Putin’s war of conquest is failing”.
“Count on us not sticking together,” Biden said of the Russian leader. ”He thought he could outlive us. I don’t think he’s thinking that right now. God only knows what he’s thinking, but I don’t think he’s thinking it. But he was simply wrong. Just wrong.
The trip gave Biden the opportunity to see firsthand the devastation the Russian invasion has wrought on Ukraine. Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have been killed, millions of refugees have fled the war, and Ukraine has suffered tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure damage.
Biden pledges long-term support to Ukraine, stating that “freedom is priceless. It’s worth fighting for as long as it takes.”
“And that’s how long we’re going to be with you, Mr. President, for as long as we need,” Biden promised. Zelensky, speaking in English, replied: “We will.”
Although Western surface-to-air missile systems have bolstered Ukraine’s defenses, the visit marked the rare occasion that a US president has traveled to a conflict zone where the US or its allies were not in control of the airspace. It was not immediately clear whether the United States had given advance notice of the trip to Moscow to avoid miscalculations that could have brought the two nuclear-armed nations into direct conflict.
The US military lacks a presence in Ukraine aside from a small detachment of Marines guarding the embassy in Kiev, making Biden’s visit more complicated than other recent visits by previous US leaders to war zones.
Speculation has been building for weeks that Biden would pay a visit to Ukraine around February 24, the anniversary of the Russian invasion. But the White House had repeatedly said no presidential trip to Ukraine was planned, even after the visit to Poland was announced earlier this month.
Since early Monday morning, many main streets and central blocks in Kiev have been cordoned off without any official explanation. Subsequently, people began sharing videos of long motorcades driving down roads where access was limited.
At the White House, planning for Biden’s visit to Kyiv was tightly held — with a relatively small group of aides briefed on the plans — due to security concerns.
Asked by a reporter on Friday whether Biden could include stops beyond Poland, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby replied, “Right now, the trip will be to Warsaw.” A few moments later, and without prompting, Kirby added, “I said ‘now.’ The trip will be between — to Warsaw. I didn’t want to make it sound like I was hinting at a change.
Biden quietly departed Joint Base Andrews near Washington at 4:15 a.m. Sunday, stopping at Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany before making his way to Ukraine. He arrived in Kiev at 8 on Monday.
Other Western leaders have traveled to Kiev since the start of the war.
In June, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and then Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi traveled together by night train to Kiev to meet with Zelenskyy. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visited Kiev in November shortly after taking office.
This is 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 with US troops and those countries’ leaders.