Inside White House's secret plan to get Biden to Ukraine

'Kyiv has captured a part of my heart,' President Biden said standing alongside Zelenskyy while announcing $460 million in additional military aid
Last Updated : 21 February 2023, 03:38 IST

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By Jennifer Jacobs, Jenny Leonard and Volodymyr Verbyany

President Joe Biden did little to tip his hand about his unannounced visit to Kyiv, heading to church on Saturday afternoon and then taking his wife out to dinner at a cosy Washington restaurant.

But by the pre-dawn hours Sunday, he was already aboard a US military plane crossing the Atlantic, the first leg of an itinerary to the Ukrainian capital carried out under cloak-and-dagger secrecy after months of meticulous planning by a close circle of advisers.

Americans woke up on a public holiday, Presidents’ Day, to clips of Biden in his trademark aviator sunglasses strolling in the cold next to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as air raid sirens blared in the background.

“Kyiv has captured a part of my heart,” he said standing alongside Zelenskyy while announcing $460 million in additional military aid.

This account of how Biden slipped into a war zone is based on US officials who spoke on the record after the president had departed the capital city. His trip began with a 4 am departure from Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, continued through a 10-hour train ride from Poland into Ukraine, and culminated in his arrival Monday morning in Kyiv, where he stayed five hours.

The war is at a pivotal stage, with a weariness setting in about the likelihood of a prolonged conflict that could put pressure on Ukraine to enter peace talks. Zelenskyy needed a shot in the arm and Biden came in person to provide that psychological boost two months after the Ukrainian leader’s own surprise visit to Washington in late December.

It was during a huddle in the Oval Office on Friday that Biden made his final decision to go. Even inside his own White House and Pentagon, very few people knew about it.

Indeed, Biden decided that sending the message that the US stayed committed to Ukraine was worth the risk of travelling to a country at war.

The question then turned to the delicate matter of when to tell the Russians. “For deconfliction purposes” the Kremlin was notified “some hours before” Biden’s departure, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters.

No details were provided about how Russia took the news and there has been no formal response to Biden’s presence in Ukraine.

The trip will draw parallels with past presidential visits to war zones like Iraq or Afghanistan, and yet it was potentially far more perilous. Unlike those places, the US didn’t control airspace or airports. For this reason, it was planned on a far smaller scale.

To avert the risk of any leaks and also for security reasons, it was determined that the travelling party would be very small: Only a handful of Biden’s closest aides, a small medical team, two journalists and Biden’s security detail.

In hindsight, there was something unusual about how Biden kicked off his weekend by hanging back in Washington. Typically he and First Lady Jill Biden go back to their home in Delaware.

This time they attended Mass on the campus of Georgetown University. That was followed by a viewing of the “The First Ladies” exhibit at the National Museum of American History.

The day was capped off with a plate of rigatoni at the Red Hen, where fellow diners stood up and clapped as the couple left the restaurant at 7:47 pm

Within hours he would be off on the most consequential overseas trip of his presidency, boarding board Air Force One with Sullivan, Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, Director of Oval Office Operations Annie Tomasini and other aides. They were headed for Poland far sooner than had been expected.

The president travels with a media pool but this time around all but two journalists were going to be left behind.

Photographer Evan Vucci of the Associated Press and reporter Sabrina Siddiqui of the Wall Street Journal were chosen from the originally-scheduled group of media travellers. The pair was called into the office of White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield on Friday and were sworn to secrecy.

They were told they would receiving an email with the subject line, “Arrival instructions for the golf tourney,” with details of their departure. They followed the instructions and handed over their cell phones before the plane carrying Biden took off. The devices were not returned to them until more than 24 hours later at the US Embassy in Kyiv.

Meanwhile, in Kyiv, a few reporters were being told late on Sunday night to show up at the Hyatt early the next morning. The logistics on both sides of the ocean were well underway.

Air Force One flew surreptitiously in a C-32 from Washington to Ramstein Air Base in Germany, then to Rzeszów, Poland. The shades of the plane were drawn.

After touching down in Poland, the president embarked on a 700-odd kilometre (430 miles) journey by train and arrived in Kyiv at 8 am local time (1 am Washington time) wearing a blue and yellow striped tie, the colours of the Ukrainian flag.

“It’s good to be back in Kyiv,” the president said as he stepped off the train. It was his eighth visit to a place he’d gotten to know well over the years, when as vice president to Barack Obama he was the point person on Ukraine.

Biden arrived at Mariinsky Palace in a white Toyota SUV instead of the usual presidential motorcade vehicles. Staff didn’t ride in the armoured limousine known as “The Beast” or a presidential SUV.

He was greeted by Zelenskyy in his signature green military fatigues and his wife, Olena. “Thank you for coming,” Zelenskiy said as he shook Biden’s hand.

In shaking the hand of Olena, Biden immediately asked “How are the children?”

The two men conferred in private for about 30 minutes. “I thought it was critical that there not be any doubt, none whatsoever, about US support for Ukraine in the war,” Biden told reporters who entered the bilateral meeting briefly.

They emerged to face the cameras together.

“Russia’s aim was to wipe Ukraine off the map,” Biden said. Russian President Vladimir Putin has “just been plain wrong. One year later, the evidence is right here in this room. We stand here together.”

Yet the most iconic scenes that will go down in history will be those of Biden and Zelenskyy walking side by side in downtown Kyiv.

As they left St. Michael’s Gold-Domed Cathedral, itself surrounded by rifle-wielding soldiers and located in a central square where burnt-out Russian tanks have been placed, the sound of air raid sirens was a stark reminder of the everyday reality of Ukrainians.

By 1:57 pm Biden had been whisked away again, having promised to stand with Ukraine “as long as it takes.” A plaque with his name was added to the Walk of the Brave in Kyiv’s Constitution Square.

Biden’s train crossed back into Poland shortly after 8 pm local time, marking the end of a whirlwind visit that Zelenskiy described succinctly as: “Historic. Timely. Brave.”

Published 21 February 2023, 03:33 IST

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