By Kevin Liptak | CNN
President Joe Biden slipped into Kiev on Monday for the first time since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly a year ago, dramatically demonstrating his commitment to the country and his struggle as the war enters an uncertain new phase.
The top-secret visit — which took place as the air raid sirens were heard in Kiev as Biden walked alongside President Volodymyr Zelensky around the gold-vaulted St. Michael’s Cathedral — comes at a critical time in the 12-month conflict with Russia preparing for an expected spring offensive and Ukraine hoping to recapture territory soon.
Biden announced half a billion dollars in new aid and said the package would include more military equipment, such as artillery ammunition, more spears and howitzers. And he said Moscow would receive new sanctions later this week.
“A year later, Kiev stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands,” Biden said.
The United States and other Western countries have been sending weapons, tanks and ammunition to Ukraine in hopes of changing the course of the war. By visiting in person, Biden paints a unique picture of American support for Zelensky, who has spent the past year trying to rally the world behind his country and plead for more help.
Biden arrived in Kiev at 8 a.m. local time after a long, secret journey from Washington. His column arrived at the Mariinsky Palace half an hour later.
“Thanks for coming,” Zelensky said as he shook Biden’s hand.
A high-stakes visit
Biden’s visit provided a highly symbolic moment, one day before a scheduled speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin to mark the anniversary of the war. Speaking from Kiev, Biden declared Putin’s “war of conquest failed.”
“Putin thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided,” Biden said, alongside Zelensky. “He thought he could outlive us. I don’t think he thinks that now.”
“He was just wrong,” Biden said of Putin. “A year later, the evidence is right here in this room. We stand here together.”
During their talks at the presidential palace, Biden explained his rationale for visiting the Ukrainian capital as the war enters a second year.
“I felt it was critical that there be no doubt whatsoever about US support for Ukraine in the war,” Biden said.
“The Ukrainian people have acted in a way few people have ever done in the past,” he added.
Biden stressed that there was broad, bipartisan support for the Ukrainian cause in Washington.
“Despite all the disagreements we have in our Congress on some issues, there is considerable agreement on support for Ukraine,” he said.
“It’s not just about freedom in Ukraine. … It’s about freedom of democracy in general,” he said.
Very secret journey
Biden’s trip to Kiev was shrouded in secrecy, reflecting deep security concerns. Air Force One took off from Joint Base Andrews at 4:15 a.m. ET Sunday after dark, and reporters aboard the plane were not allowed to carry their devices.
Biden’s public program did not reflect the trip, and White House officials repeatedly said last week that a visit to Ukraine was not in the works.
On Saturday night, before leaving, Biden went out to dinner with his wife in Washington. He was not seen in public again until he arrived in Kiev on Monday morning.
Ukraine is an active war zone over which the US military has no control, making Monday’s visit different from previous presidential trips to Iraq or Afghanistan. White House officials had repeatedly ruled out a visit earlier this year.
Biden travels with a relatively small entourage, including National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon and Personal Assistant Annie Tomasini.
Zelensky himself traveled to Washington in December to meet Biden in the Oval Office and speak before a joint session of Congress — his first trip outside of Ukraine since the war began.
The Ukrainian leader invited Biden to visit Kiev months ago and said he thought it was important for the US leader to experience the situation up close.
“I think he’s the leader of the United States, and that’s why he should come here,” Zelensky said in an April interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. Just last week, Zelensky said his invitation to Biden to visit Ukraine remained open, even though he acknowledged there were other ways they could speak.
“President Biden and I meet occasionally. You know we invited the president. I think he will be happy to visit Ukraine if he gets the chance. That would be an important signal to support our nation,” Zelensky said on Feb. 15.
The trip comes ahead of Biden’s planned two-day visit to Poland. The president will be in Warsaw on Tuesday, where he will meet Polish President Andrzej Duda, the White House said on Sunday.
Biden’s visit follows the travels of other world leaders
Biden has been eager to visit Ukraine for months, especially after several of his counterparts in Europe have all endured long train journeys to meet Zelensky in Kiev. French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, as well as former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have all visited the country to show their support.
Several of Biden’s top lieutenants, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, have also visited the Ukrainian capital to pledge new aid. Senior government officials, including CIA Director Bill Burns and top White House officials, visited Kiev last month.
Even Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, made a surprise visit to a small town in the far southwest corner of Ukraine on Mother’s Day last year. She met Zelenska at a former school that had been converted into temporary housing for displaced Ukrainians, including 48 children.
Still, security measures had prevented Biden from making a similar trip. When he visited Poland last April, the White House didn’t even explore options for a cross-border trip, even though Biden said he had expressed interest.
“They don’t – understandably I think – let me cross the border to see what’s happening in Ukraine,” he said at the time.
With the war dragging on for nearly a year on Feb. 24, Biden hopes to show the world his commitment to Ukraine, even as it remains unclear how long American and Western determination may last.
Asked about the significance of being in Kiev, Biden noted that it was his eighth visit to the city. “More important each time,” Biden said.
He added that the purpose of his visit was to make it clear to Zelensky that the US is “here to stay”.
“We’re not leaving,” Biden said.
U.S. officials have privately expressed hope that the massive influx of weapons to Ukraine — including new vehicles, longer-range missiles and Patriot air defense systems — could help Ukraine triumph on the battlefield and put Zelensky in a stronger position to negotiate an end to the war . .
But it remains unclear what parameters Zelensky would be willing to accept in peace negotiations, and the US has steadfastly refused to define what a settlement might look like, beyond the fact that it’s up to Zelensky to decide.
Concerns about China’s support for Russia
Biden’s visit to Ukraine also comes as US concerns grow about China’s support for the Russian army.
U.S. officials told CNN on Saturday that the U.S. has recently begun to see “disturbing” trends and that there are signs that Beijing is “wanting to go to great lengths” to deliver deadly military aid to Moscow without getting caught.
The officials would not detail what intelligence the US has seen pointing to a recent shift in China’s attitude, but said US officials were so concerned that they shared the intelligence with allies and partners at the Security Conference in China in recent days. Munich.
Blinken raised the issue when he met with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on the sidelines of the conference on Saturday, officials said.
Wang, who was named top foreign policy adviser to Chinese leader Xi Jinping last month, is expected to arrive in Moscow this week, the first visit to the country by a Chinese official in that role since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
According to China’s Foreign Ministry, Wang’s visit will provide China and Russia with an opportunity to further develop their strategic partnership and “exchange views” on “international and regional hotspot issues of common concern” – a collective term often used to describe referring to topics like the war in Ukraine.
™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.