Biden Visits Kyiv, Ukraine’s Besieged Capital, as Air-Raid Siren Sounds

KYIV, Ukraine — President Biden made a surprise trip to the besieged capital of Ukraine on Monday, traveling under a cloak of secrecy into a war zone to demonstrate what he called America’s “unwavering support” of the effort to beat back Russian forces nearly a year after they invaded the country.

Mr. Biden arrived unannounced early Monday morning to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky, and the two stepped out into the streets of Kyiv even as an air-raid siren sounded, a dramatic moment captured on video that underscored the investment the United States has made in Ukraine’s independence.

“One year later, Kyiv stands,” Mr. Biden declared at Mr. Zelensky’s side in Mariinsky Palace. “And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands.”

“Thank you so much for coming, Mr. President, at a huge moment for Ukraine,” Mr. Zelensky said.

Mr. Biden promised to release another $500 million in military aid in coming days, citing artillery ammunition, Javelin missiles and Howitzers, but he did not mention the advanced arms that Ukraine has sought. Mr. Zelensky told reporters that he and the president spoke about “long range weapons and the weapons that may still be supplied to Ukraine even though it wasn’t supplied before.”

Mr. Biden joined Mr. Zelensky for a visit to St. Michael’s Monastery in downtown Kyiv, where the sun glittered off the golden domes as the air-raid alarm wailed. Trailing two soldiers bearing a wreath, the two leaders walked along the Wall of Remembrance, where portraits are on display of more than 4,500 soldiers who have died since Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and first fomented a rebellion in eastern Ukraine.

The air-raid alarm stopped by the time Mr. Biden got back into his motorcade and departed the monastery. Air-raid alarms sound almost daily in Kyiv, but the blare of the siren added to the bristling tension of the moment. Ukrainian officials have been warning that Russia is planning a large-scale missile bombardment to be timed to the one-year anniversary of the war.

The alarm on Monday morning was triggered by a Russian Mig fighter jet taking off in Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the north. A missile from a Mig fired from Belarus can hit a target in Kyiv in under 20 minutes.

Mr. Biden had already been scheduled to arrive in Warsaw on Tuesday morning for a two-day visit, and White House officials had repeatedly brushed off questions about whether he might also travel to Ukraine while in Europe. Indeed, the White House on Sunday night issued a public schedule for Monday showing the president still in Washington and leaving in the evening for Warsaw, when in fact he was already half a world away.

But the president has made American support for Ukraine the centerpiece of his argument for a revitalized alliance in Europe, and he had told advisers that he wanted to mark the first anniversary of the invasion as a way of reassuring allies that his administration remains committed.

Mr. Biden slipped out of Washington in the dark of night without notice. Air Force One took off at 4:15 a.m. on Sunday east coast time. Just a few reporters sworn to secrecy and deprived of their telephones were brought with him, along with Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser; Jen O’Malley Dillon, his deputy chief of staff; and Annie Tomasini, the director of Oval Office operations.

The reporters traveling with him were allowed to send a pool report to other journalists only after his arrival and were not permitted to further describe how he traveled to Kyiv while he was still in the country. An American official, who asked not to be identified, confirmed that after a trans-Atlantic flight to Poland, Mr. Biden crossed the border by train, traveling for nearly 10 hours to Kyiv as other American officials have in recent months because flying into a war zone is unsafe. He was to leave on a similar train trip and then, after crossing the border, head to Warsaw.

It was an arduous journey for an 80-year-old president, who nonetheless appeared energized by the opportunity to come in person. Wearing a blue suit with a blue and yellow striped tie, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, Mr. Biden arrived in Kyiv at 8 a.m. local time. “It’s good to be back in Kyiv,” he told Ambassador Bridget A. Brink, who was waiting for him.

He took a motorcade through streets that had been cleared of any local traffic to Mariinsky Palace, where he was greeted by Mr. Zelensky, wearing his signature black sweatshirt with dark green pants and beige boots.

“Thank you for coming,” Mr. Zelensky said, shaking Mr. Biden’s hand.

Mr. Biden asked after Mr. Zelensky’s children. Asked by a reporter about his goal for the trip, Mr. Biden said it was to show that the United States is “here to stay,” adding, “We’re not leaving.”

During a meeting inside the palace, Mr. Zelensky thanked Mr. Biden again. “I really appreciate that President Biden, American society, have been from the very beginning” of the war “together with us.”

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Mr. Biden told him, “It’s presumptuous of me to say this, but I thought it was important that the president of the United States be here the day that the attack began,” Mr. Biden said, arriving four days before the anniversary. He added: “I thought it was critical that there not be any doubt, none whatsoever, about U.S. support for Ukraine in the war.”

There was speculation swirling on social media all morning about a possible visit by Mr. Biden as police closed streets and Ukrainian officials hinted that an important dignitary was arriving. Crowds gathered outside barricades erected outside St. Michael’s in the hopes of catching a glimpse of what was happening.

Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to Mr. Zelensky, said it was a “historic visit” that underscored the partnership between the two countries fighting to preserve democracy.

“Believe me, Joe Biden’s visit is strategic,” he said in a statement. “A lot of issues are being resolved and those that have been stuck will be sped up. Our common goal is the victory of Ukraine over Russia and the triumph of Ukrainian soldiers and Western weapons.”

Mr. Biden arrived in Ukraine’s capital at a pivotal moment of the war, both at home and abroad. Some of America’s staunchest allies have pressed Ukraine to begin negotiating a peace deal that might involve giving up territory to Russia. And in the United States, the newly installed House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, and some of his fellow Republican lawmakers have demanded an end to what they call “a blank check” for the war effort.

Mr. Biden sought to reassure Ukrainians about that. “For all the disagreement we have in our Congress on some issues, there is significant agreement on support for Ukraine,” Mr. Biden said.

Mr. Biden’s surprise visit came just two days after Vice President Kamala Harris declared in Munich that Russia was guilty of “crimes against humanity” during the war. And the visit came a day before President Vladimir V. Putin on Tuesday is expected to speak about his country’s war effort amid indications that a spring offensive in Ukraine is already underway.

Mr. Biden is scheduled to meet with President Andrzej Duda of Poland on Tuesday morning and deliver a speech from the Warsaw Castle later that afternoon — creating a split-screen image of Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin each speaking about Ukraine on the same day.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned into a long, brutal slog, with Ukrainian forces — backed by the United States and other Western allies — putting up a fierce fight, especially in the east. But Mr. Putin’s forces, bolstered by an army of private soldiers conscripted into service, have begun a fresh assault on those positions even as Russia continues its practice of bombardment of civilian infrastructure in cities across Ukraine.

Mr. Biden’s visit to Kyiv recalled the secret missions flown by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to Iraq and Afghanistan during the height of the wars in those countries. But bringing a president into Ukraine without the sort of American troop presence that was on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan presented a security challenge of a vastly different magnitude. American warplanes were spotted flying over Poland near the border but officials said they did not enter Ukrainian airspace.

Mr. Biden’s visit comes after Mr. Zelensky made his own high-profile visit to Washington just before Christmas Day last year, his first trip outside Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion, as he pleaded with Western leaders to provide more support.

Mr. Zelensky made that appeal during meetings with Mr. Biden at the White House and in an emotional speech to Congress. Like Mr. Biden’s trip to Ukraine, Mr. Zelensky’s visit was kept secret until the eve of his arrival for security reasons.

Two days after Mr. Zelensky’s speech, Congress approved nearly $50 billion in additional emergency aid for Ukraine, much of it military equipment aimed at allowing the country to fight back against Russia. That pushed the total amount of U.S. aid approved for Ukraine since the war started past $100 billion.

Initially, Mr. Biden and his top aides had been reluctant to use the money to provide Ukraine with the most advanced weapons systems, capable of being used to attack deep into Russian territory. The president said he was wary of giving Mr. Putin an excuse to escalate the conflict more broadly.

Mr. Biden remains opposed to supplying U.S. fighter jets, but his resistance to other equipment has softened. The president announced last month that he would provide M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine this year and his administration has committed to delivering a Patriot air defense battery to the country and training Ukrainian troops to use it.

There has been some fraying of the domestic coalition in the long year of war, and Mr. Biden is under pressure from all sides, including those who oppose sending so much taxpayer money to a far-off war and others who insist the United States needs to do even more in the face of Russian aggression.

But some former American diplomats said Mr. Biden had opened the door to criticism because he had not made the most expansive case possible for supporting Ukraine.

John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and a senior director at the Atlantic Council, said the president needed to be more direct about describing why support for Ukraine was vital to American interests.

“Instead of saying simply, we will stay with Ukraine as long as it takes, we would say, we have a vital interest in delivering a strategic defeat to Putin or Ukrainian victory or both,” Mr. Herbst said.

Peter Baker reported from Washington and Michael Shear from Warsaw.

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