The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Cloak-and-dagger moves allow Biden to sneak into Ukraine’s war zone

Unusual news blackout, elaborate feints surround Biden’s visit to a city under regular bombardment

President Biden walks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at St. Michael's Golden-Domed Cathedral during his unannounced visit to Kyiv Monday. (Evan Vucci/AP)
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WARSAW — As President Biden stepped out of a golden-domed church during his unannounced, high-stakes trip to Kyiv — a city under regular bombardment from Russian forces — an air-raid siren abruptly went off, signaling that a Russian military jet armed with missiles had taken off from its home territory.

The plane ultimately did not pose a threat to Biden’s location; U.S. officials had tried to reduce the risks by taking the extraordinary step of informing Moscow of Biden’s planned visit ahead of time. But the shrill alarm was a reminder of the peril of an American president visiting a war-besieged capital in a region where military groups and mercenaries are not known for following the rules.

“There was still risk — and is still risk — in an endeavor like this,” said Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, speaking by cellphone as he accompanied the president out of Ukraine on Monday. Among the striking features of the whirlwind visit was Biden’s use of a train that had been set aside for him to get in and out of Ukraine, a necessity given the dangers of traversing Ukrainian airspace.

President Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv on Feb. 20 and announced plans to send an additional $460 million in U.S. military assistance to Ukraine. (Video: Naomi Schanen/The Washington Post)

Biden told his aides months ago he wanted to travel to Ukraine, but he only made the final decision on Friday after a last-minute huddle in the Oval Office and phone call with his national security cabinet, according to Jon Finer, Biden’s principal deputy national security adviser.

That decision set in motion a stealthy plan that involved a close hold on information, with just two journalists summoned that afternoon and told of the trip so they could prepare to be on it. They were told to watch for an email with the subject line “Arrival instructions for the golf tourney” that would provide further instructions.

In surprise visit to Kyiv, Biden vows enduring support

Saturday evening appeared routine for the president, perhaps by design. He was slated to visit Poland to mark the Ukraine war’s first anniversary, but that trip was not scheduled to start until Monday. Biden and first lady Jill Biden attended Saturday night Mass at Georgetown University, visited an exhibit at the National Museum of American History and dined on rigatoni at the Red Hen, a trendy D.C. restaurant known for its pasta.

Just hours later, in the predawn darkness Sunday, Biden and his team boarded a small government aircraft and departed for the war zone. Only three White House officials accompanied the president: Sullivan; Jen O’Malley Dillon, the deputy chief of staff; and Annie Tomasini, director of Oval Office operations and one of Biden’s closest personal aides.

A small medical staff also came along, as did security officers and the official White House photographer — a bare-bones operation compared to the president’s usual entourage.

Rather than taking the large aircraft presidents usually use for their official travel, Biden boarded an Air Force C-32, which is generally utilized to fly into smaller airports. Before takeoff, the plane sat in the dark, its shades drawn, away from the tarmac where it is usually parked for presidential travel.

When the plane lifted off at 4:15 a.m., it kicked off a nearly 22-hour journey involving planes, motorcades and trains that would deliver Biden nearly 5,000 miles away in Kyiv for his meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The trip exposed the commander in chief to security risks in a war zone where no U.S. troops are stationed. It represented a gamble that a dramatic gesture could help galvanize American support for the war, provide a shot of energy to the global coalition opposing Russia and raise the morale of Ukrainians themselves.

Despite the dangers, Biden and his inner circle had decided that the powerful image of Biden embracing Zelensky in the Ukrainian homeland was worth it. “President Biden felt that it was important to make this trip, because of the critical juncture that we find ourselves at as we approach the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine,” Sullivan said.

As the possibility of a visit gained momentum, U.S. and Ukrainian officials had kept in frequent contact to weigh the risks and strategize on how to mitigate them. “Obviously, this was all worked very closely between the White House and the highest levels of the Ukrainian government, who have become quite adept at hosting high level visitors — although not one quite like this,” Finer said.

What we know about Biden's secretive trip

After a refueling stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany — where the plane’s shades were kept down during the hour-and-15-minute stop — Biden finally landed at Rzeszów-Jasionka Airport in Poland. His motorcade drove about an hour to the Ukrainian border, with the sirens off to avoid drawing attention.

Upon arriving at Poland’s Przemysl Glowny train station, Biden boarded a train that was under heavy security and had few onlookers. The eight-car train rumbled through the Polish and Ukrainian countryside for more than 10 hours, mostly in the dark with little visible outside beyond streetlights and shadows, with a few brief stops to pick up additional security personnel.

It was not the way a president usually travels, but Ukrainian airspace has been shut down since the outset of the war, making trains an essential source of weapons, food, equipment and supplies for nearly a year. The tracks and vehicles have come under fire from Russian forces, but they have been quickly repaired by Ukrainian crews. A love of trains is part of Biden’s public image — he commuted on Amtrak throughout his 36 years in the U.S. Senate — but this rail trip was unlike any other.

On a typical trip, the stops often feature Ukrainian husbands and fathers saying long farewells to their families as they head off to combat. Closer to the border, Ukrainian soldiers scrutinize passports and overturn sleeper beds looking for deserters and stowaways. But with foreign leaders visiting during the war to show support, Ukrainian officials have become adept at transforming the trains for VIP use.

U.S. officials said the lack of American troops in Ukraine made this operation especially tricky. “Unlike previous visits from presidents to war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. obviously does not have a military presence on the ground in Ukraine, which made a visit from a sitting president all the more challenging,” said Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director. “But this was a risk that Joe Biden wanted to take.”

Biden arrived at the Kyiv-Pasazhyrsky station in the Ukrainian capital at about 8 a.m. local time, as the city buzzed with rumors of a high-level visitor and numerous streets were blocked off by security. Biden, wearing a blue-and-yellow striped tie to showcase the colors of Ukraine’s flag, was greeted on arrival by Bridget Brink, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

“It’s good to be back in Kyiv,” he said after stepping off the train.

Biden then was driven to the Mariinsky Palace, the official residence of Ukraine’s president, where he met with Zelensky — dressed in his signature black sweatshirt with dark green pants and beige boots — and his wife, Olena Zelenska.

“Thank you for coming,” Zelensky said. Biden responded, “It’s amazing to see you. More importantly, how are the children?”

He signed a guest book, closing with “Slava Ukraini!” or “Glory to Ukraine!” And he told Zelensky, “Kyiv has captured a part of my heart, I must say.”

The two presidents left the palace for St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral in Kyiv, a symbolic venue where they took a stroll as photographers and passersby snapped photos and videos. The footage was widely distributed, and the news blackout was broken. As the leaders left the church, the air raid sirens rang out overhead.

Andriy Sybiha, Zelensky’s foreign affairs adviser, said the sirens went off because of “the threat of a missile attack in connection with the departure of the Russian plane.” Sirens often sound when Russian planes with missile capabilities take off in Russia or Belarus, since those aircraft can strike sites in Ukraine within minutes.

After the church visit, Biden and Zelensky laid a wreath at a memorial for Ukrainians who have been killed since 2014, when Russia seized the territory of Crimea. Biden then traveled to the American Embassy in Kyiv to greet its personnel.

He was back at the Kyiv train station by a little after 1 p.m. local time, heading toward Warsaw, which he is scheduled to visit Tuesday and Wednesday before returning to Washington.

During the visit to Kyiv, Biden noted that he has traveled there several times, including just days before ending his vice-presidential term. But never have the stakes been so high, or the risks so great.

“Each time, more significant,” Biden said.

David Stern in Kyiv, Ukraine, and Annabelle Timsit in London contributed to this report.