The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A timeline of Biden’s secretive trip into and out of Kyiv

President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky walk in Kyiv on Monday. (Evan Vucci/AFP/Getty Images)
5 min

President Biden’s Monday-morning arrival in Kyiv surprised all but a few officials and journalists who were clued in to the trip before it happened.

Journalists traveling with Biden could not provide real-time updates of his visit because of security concerns, but they relayed what led to the Presidents’ Day arrival.

Now that the security embargo has been lifted, the pool reporter assigned to cover the surprise trip can explain how Biden made it into and out of Ukraine.

Cloak-and-dagger moves accompany rare presidential trip to war zone

Friday, Feb. 17

Biden’s trip took months to plan because of the security implications of a wartime trip, White House officials told journalists in a Monday call. Biden made the final decision to travel Friday, the officials said, after a conversation in the Oval Office and over the phone with “key members of his national security Cabinet.”

The reporter and a photographer were called to private meeting on Friday and informed that Biden would be traveling to Kyiv — and that they would be the two journalists allowed in the travel pool. Roughly a dozen journalists generally chronicle the president’s moves around the globe.

With secrecy required, the pool reporter was told to look out for an email containing instructions for an early Sunday morning departure from Andrews Air Force Base outside D.C. The subject line would read: “Arrival instructions for the golf tourney.”

Saturday, Feb. 18

The email came at 3 p.m. with instructions to report to Andrews, the home of Air Force One, between 2 a.m. and 2:15 a.m. Sunday.

Sunday, Feb. 19

The phones of the two pool journalists were taken by agents and not returned until they arrived at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv more than 24 hours later.

Air Force One departed Joint Base Andrews at 4:15 a.m. Eastern time, according to the reporter on board who did not see Biden enter the plane but heard an announcement about 4 a.m. that the president had boarded.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan, Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon and Director of Oval Office Operations Annie Tomasini accompanied Biden.

On the call with journalists, White House officials said the traveling party was purposefully kept small, with a few of his closest aides, a medical team and security officers.

At some point several hours before Biden’s departure, the White House notified Russia of the visit to avoid conflict.

Air Force One touched down at Ramstein Air Base in Germany about 5:15 p.m. local time Sunday to refuel after the roughly seven-hour leg, then took off again about 6:30 p.m. It arrived at Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport in Poland’s southeast about 8 p.m. local time Sunday.

The motorcade began rolling about 8:15 p.m. for a one-hour drive before arriving at the Przemysl Glowny train station. At about 9:15 p.m. Biden was dropped off directly in front of his train car.

The train left Przemysl Glowny just after 9:30 p.m. local time and quickly crossed the border into Ukraine, according to the pool reporter.

Monday, Feb. 20

According to the journalists traveling with him, Biden arrived in Kyiv at 8 a.m. local time. He wore a blue-and-yellow-striped tie, the colors of Ukraine’s flag, and was met on arrival by U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget A. Brink.

“It’s good to be back in Kyiv,” Biden declared as he was greeted by Brink.

This is the eighth time Biden has visited the city, the president told a pool reporter.

Biden traveled to the Mariinsky Palace, the official residence of Ukraine’s president in Kyiv, and arrived about 8:30 a.m. He was met by the entrance by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and first lady Olena Zelenska. In the palace, Biden signed a guest book, took photos with Zelensky and greeted U.S. and Ukrainian officials. After speaking to reporters, the leaders met privately.

Before Biden’s arrival, Kyiv had been buzzing with rumors of a high-level visitor, with authorities tightening security and closing off roads without explanation.

At 11:19 a.m., Biden left the palace and traveled to St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in Kyiv, a symbolic venue where he and Zelensky took a side-by-side stroll as photographers and passersby captured the moment. This is when news that Biden was in Kyiv began to spread widely.

Biden and Zelensky briefly entered the church. Air raid sirens rang as they left. The presidential motorcade departed that location at 11:40 a.m., after Biden and Zelensky laid a wreath at a memorial for those killed in fighting with Russia since 2014.

Air raid sirens blared across Kyiv as President Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy visited St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery on Feb. 20. (Video: Reuters)

Biden then traveled to the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, where he arrived about noon. The motorcade departed about 45 minutes later.

Biden left Kyiv by train just before 1:10 p.m. local time. The train crossed the border back into Poland shortly after 8 p.m. local time.

The train arrived at Przemysl Glowny at 8:45 p.m. local time, and Biden’s motorcade was rolling about 15 minutes later.

He arrived at Rzeszow-Jasionka at 10:04 p.m. and boarded Air Force One, set for Warsaw, shortly thereafter.

At 11:13 p.m., the presidential plane landed in Warsaw, ending the surprise trip and setting Biden up for Tuesday’s meeting with leaders of former Soviet Union nations who will discuss how the West can help Ukraine fight off Russian forces.

Missy Ryan, Andrea Salcedo, Leo Sands, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. and Ben Brasch contributed to this report.