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Why Biden made a surprise visit to Ukraine despite the high risks
“It required a great deal of careful planning, a senior White House official said. “But this was a risk that Joe Biden was willing to take.”
President Joe Biden had an uncharacteristically buzzy evening this past Saturday.
After attending mass on the campus of Georgetown University with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden, the couple arrived at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History to view “The First Ladies” exhibition — nearly a month removed from Dr. Biden’s formal presentation of her inaugural attire to the museum, where it is now officially a part of the collection.
The Bidens ended their night with dinner at the Red Hen, an Italian restaurant in the Bloomingdale area of DC famous for its rigatoni, which they both ordered.
Now we know why Biden was clocking some quality time with the first lady: A few hours later he would depart Washington for a surprise high-risk visit to Ukraine just days before the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion.
“I thought it was critical that there not be any doubt, none whatsoever, about US support for Ukraine in the war,” Biden said. “I’m here to show our unwavering support for the nation’s independence, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.”
“Thank you so much for coming Mr. President at a huge moment for Ukraine,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine said. ”What can I say, I really appreciate that President Biden, American society have been from the very beginning … of this war have been together with us.”
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Biden arrived in Kyiv at 8 a.m. local time and was greeted by US Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink.
“It’s good to be back in Kyiv,” Biden said.
The presidential motorcade arrived at Mariinsky Palace just after 8:30 a.m. local time, where he was greeted at the entrance outside by President Zelenskyy and his wife, Olena Zelenska.
In joint remarks with Zelenskyy, Biden announced $500 million of additional assistance. While more details will be released in the coming days, Biden said the package will include more military equipment, including ammunition, more javelin surface-to-air missiles and Howitzer self-propelled artillery systems.
Biden and Zelenskyy then did an outdoor walkabout at St. Michael’s Gold-Domed Cathedral in central Kyiv. The cathedral’s sky-blue and golden buildings have long been a symbol of Ukrainian resistance after its priests gave shelter in 2013 to pro-Western protesters, many of them students, who had been beaten by police forces under the authority of a Kremlin-backed president.
Air raid sirens were heard across the city as Biden and Zelenskyy left the church to walk over and lay a wreath at the Wall of Remembrance for the fallen heroes of the Russian-Ukrainian war as a military salute played and the presidents silently observed a few moments.
Biden also stopped at the US embassy in Kyiv around noon local time before departing for his scheduled trip to Warsaw.
As recently as Friday, the White House said there were no plans for President Biden to cross into Ukraine while in Poland.
But during a press call with reporters this morning after the news broke, White House officials said the visit was meticulously planned over a period of months and characterized it as a historic, unprecedented and incredibly powerful message that President Biden has faith in the Ukrainian people and is unwavering in his commitment to stand by them.
“It required a great deal of careful planning. Unlike previous visits from presidents to war zones, like Iraq and Afghanistan, the US obviously does not have a military presence on the ground in Ukraine, which made a visit from a sitting president all the more challenging,” White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield told reporters during a press call this morning. “But this was a risk that Joe Biden was willing to take. It’s important for him to show up — even when it’s hard — and he directed his team to make it happen, no matter how challenging the logistics.”
National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the goal was to make an “inherently risky undertaking” a “manageable level of risk.”
Jon Finer, the deputy NSA, said this effort involved the Chief of Staff’s office, the National Security Council and the Military Office at the White House as well a small number of colleagues at the Pentagon, Secret Service and within the intelligence community, who offered threat assessments on the visit.
“The president was fully briefed on each stage of the plan and any potential contingencies and then made the final go or no-go decision after a huddle in the Oval Office and by phone with some key members of his national security cabinet on Friday,” Finer said.
White House officials also worked with the Ukrainian government and with the US embassy in Kyiv, which played a key role as an intermediary.
Sullivan confirmed the White House did notify the Russians that President Biden would be traveling to Ukraine a few hours before his departure “for deconfliction purposes” but declined to comment on how the Kremlin responded, citing the sensitive nature of those communications.
Air Force One departed from Andrews Air Force Base at 4:15 a.m. ET Sunday. The president boarded the plane at roughly 4:00 a.m., according to an overhead announcement. Sabrina Siddiqui of The Wall Street Journal, the only print reporter who traveled with Biden and provided delayed updates to the White House press corps on the president’s movements due to security concerns, was asked to hand over her devices two hours before departure, as is often the case for unannounced presidential visits of this nature. (The travel pool also consisted of Evan Vucci of the Associated Press.)
Biden’s demonstration of solidarity was as much for House conservatives and worn-out voters who would like to see an expiration date on the aid the US is providing as it was for Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people.
It also followed Vice President Kamala Harris’s big speech on Sunday at the Munich Security Conference where she formally accused Russia of committing crimes against humanity and a bipartisan group of members of Congress attended to back up Biden and Harris’s as-long-as-it-takes commitment.
“All the thanks to Congress,” Zelenskyy said during his remarks with Biden in gratitude to lawmakers for approving billions of dollars in assistance.
“For 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’s about freedom of democracy at large.”
And Biden will continue to make this case in Poland.
“The president well knows that whenever he speaks, he’s speaking to people all around the world as well as, of course, the American people,” John Kirby, a National Security Council spokesperson, said on Friday. “But I think you’ll hear messages in the president’s speech that will certainly resonate with the American people, will certainly resonate with our allies and partners, without question resonate with the Polish people who have done so much and continue to do so.”
Another audience Biden will be messaging? “Mr. Putin as well as the Russian people,” Kirby added.
President Biden also made clear in his remarks that there will be difficult times ahead. A portion of Ukraine is under Russian control and Russia continues to attack civilian populations across the country. And it’s expected that Putin will launch an aggressive offensive against Ukraine at the one-year mark to reset the narrative that he and his armed forces are weak.
“This was not a celebration, but an affirmation of commitment, of the resilience of the Ukrainian people, of the courage and bravery they’ve shown,” Sullivan said. “And also an affirmation of the fact that the United States and our allies and partners have mobilized unprecedented levels of military, economic and humanitarian support to provide the Ukrainian people with the tools that they’ve needed to defend their country.”
Zelenskyy has been direct in his requests for new capabilities to fight back against the upcoming onslaught. And while the two presidents had a detailed discussion of the battlefield situation, Ukraine’s objectives, the military support and assistance the US has already provided and capabilities going forward, Biden did not announce any new types of equipment that Ukraine has not received before.
“You can’t hardly blame him, can you? Can’t blame President Zelenskyy for wanting more, heavier, faster,” Kirby said to reporters on Friday of Zelenskyy. “I mean, he’s a commander in chief in a time of war — a war he didn’t ask for it and certainly had — there was no justification for it. And we understand that. We also understand the clock. And the know that time is critical here.”
For Biden though, there’s a time to talk about the future. This trip was about Ukraine’s resilience and Western unity.
“You said that you didn’t know when we’d be able to speak again. 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” Biden said to Zelenskyy. “One year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands. The Americans stand with you and the world stands with you.”