The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

On surprise trip to Kyiv, Biden vows enduring support for Ukraine

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)
10 min

KYIV, Ukraine — President Biden made a dramatic, unannounced visit to Kyiv on Monday, in a display of robust American support for Ukraine just four days before the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion.

The high-risk visit to the historic Ukrainian capital — where air raid sirens blared as Biden walked the streets with President Volodymyr Zelensky — signaled the continued commitment of the United States, the largest financial and military backer of Ukraine’s effort to repel Russian invaders from its territory.

Follow The Post’s live updates on Biden’s visit to Ukraine

News of his five-hour visit erupted when Biden was spotted with the Ukrainian leader outside St. Michael’s golden-domed monastery shortly before noon local time, ending hours of speculation about the reasons for an intense security lockdown that had halted vehicular and pedestrian traffic in parts of central Kyiv.

Following talks with Zelensky and a visit to the U.S. Embassy, Biden boarded a train to make the 10-hour return journey to a border city in Poland, according to a pool reporter traveling with him. The visit, however brief, represented one of the most remarkable presidential trips in modern history, sending the U.S. leader into a country at war and a city under regular bombardment without the heavy American military presence that provided a protective shield during previous stops in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told reporters that the White House had notified Moscow ahead of Biden’s travel “for deconfliction purposes.”

In his remarks alongside Zelensky, Biden said the United States would provide another half-billion dollars of assistance to Ukraine, including additional ammunition for the artillery systems the United States previously provided. Biden has insisted Washington will back Ukraine against Russia for “as long as it takes” despite flagging support among the American public and no near-term prospect of peace talks.

Biden’s administration has provided about $30 billion in security aid since President Vladimir Putin sent Russian forces into Ukraine on Feb. 24, 2022, initiating the largest ground war in Europe since World War II — one that has cost his country and Ukraine hundreds of thousands of casualties.

As Russians inch forward near Bakhmut, Ukrainians dig fallback defenses

Under Biden’s leadership, the United States and its NATO allies have gradually expanded the array of weaponry they have pledged to include heavy tanks, though Ukrainian leaders continue to press for more sophisticated weapons as the combatants prepare for renewed offensives this spring.

Biden said his visit was intended to reaffirm American backing for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, which Russia has violated since 2014, when Putin annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula and launched support for a separatist campaign in the eastern Donbas region.

Photos showed Biden and Zelensky embracing in front of a wall where images of Ukrainian soldiers were displayed.

The White House has attempted to cast the deepening conflict as a high-stakes battle that will determine not only Ukraine’s fate but also that of democracies and the rule of law everywhere, arguing that if Putin is permitted to seize parts of another nation by force, it will be a green light for other autocrats.

“When Putin launched his invasion nearly one year ago, he thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided. He thought he could outlast us,” Biden said in a statement after his arrival. “But he was dead wrong.”

Video later showed the president, wearing a dark suit and, in an apparent nod to the Ukrainian flag, a blue-and yellow striped tie, seated with Zelensky, who wore his usual military-style attire.

The visit represented a major boost for Zelensky, whose domestic support has soared in line with national unity and anti-Russian fury since the invasion.

As a wartime leader, Zelensky faces the formidable task of propelling Ukraine’s fatigued military into Russian-occupied territory while also persuading foreign partners to provide ever greater military support, including fighter jets. U.S. officials have so far declined to supply aircraft to Ukraine.

Biden’s trip comes as questions abound about the longevity of global backing for Ukraine and the cohesion of the U.S.-led coalition that has enabled Kyiv’s military success so far. A top U.S. official said in recent days that China was actively considering sending military aid to Russia.

While Western nations continue to proclaim strong support, many have grown worried about the economic and political costs of a protracted conflict — and about their ability to keep the money and munitions flowing.

Russians abandon wartime Russia in historic exodus

Opinion polls show that Americans are growing weary of the aid effort, mirroring complaints across the globe about billions going to Ukraine instead of other priorities. In recent weeks, the White House has told Kyiv that it could soon see limits in support from the United States and other countries.

The giant aid packages that America has sent to Ukraine to date were approved under a Democratic-controlled Congress. Republicans retook the House in November, and a vocal right-wing minority in the GOP has threatened to curtail support.

Biden’s trip was shrouded in secrecy and, on the ground in Kyiv, involved even greater security than other high-level visits. Biden had been set to leave for an announced visit to Poland from Washington on Monday evening but, according to a pair of journalists who traveled with Biden to Kyiv, he secretly departed Washington around 4 a.m. Sunday instead.

Journalists accompanying Biden agreed to withhold real-time details of the president’s movements, including how he arrived in the Ukrainian capital. The country’s airspace has been closed for the past year.

After Biden’s return to Poland, a pool reporter was permitted to disclose additional information, including steps the White House took to conceal Biden’s itinerary. Journalists were provided details about their arrival at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington early Sunday, for example, under the pretext of traveling for a golf tournament.

Upon surrendering their phones, they joined Biden’s entourage on a military aircraft for the flight to Europe. After a refueling stop in Germany, Biden touched down in eastern Poland, where he boarded an overnight train to Kyiv.

While other world leaders have visited Kyiv to meet with Zelensky and tour the city over the past year, Biden has stayed away because of security concerns and wariness about the possibility of a conflict between the world’s two largest nuclear powers. He has sent senior aides including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in his place, and the first lady, Jill Biden, made a surprise visit to western Ukraine on Mother’s Day.

In contrast, Britain’s Boris Johnson visited Kyiv three times as prime minister in the months after the invasion.

In a call with reporters after Biden’s departure from Kyiv, White House officials described the trip as “bold” and “risky” and said it was the product of months of planning.

They said the arrangements — and the central question of whether Biden could safely get to Kyiv and back — were made more challenging by the lack of an official U.S. military presence in Ukraine. While there is a small defense liaison office at the U.S. Embassy, Biden has promised to keep American troops out of the war.

The interest in the president’s travel gave the White House an opportunity to rebut Kremlin propaganda about how Russia is actually fighting a proxy war with the United States and NATO.

Sanctions haven’t stopped Russia, but a new oil ban could cut deeper

“This was a historic visit unprecedented in modern times, to have the president of the United States visit the capital of a country at war where the U.S. military doesn’t control the critical infrastructure,” Sullivan said.

Biden’s visit occurs against the backdrop of the worst acrimony between Washington and Moscow in decades. A U.S.-led campaign of economic sanctions and political isolation has harmed Russia’s economy and left Putin with few global allies.

Russian officials and state media figures portrayed the visit as a publicity stunt, as part of Biden’s reelection bid, or as confirmation of repeated assertions by the Kremlin and its propagandists that the United States is waging a proxy war against Russia through Ukraine.

“Biden, having received security guarantees, finally went to Kyiv, where he promised a lot of weapons and swore allegiance to the neo-Nazi regime to the grave,” Dmitry Medvedev, the former Russian president and now a senior security official in Putin’s administration, wrote in his Telegram blog.

Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Russian Foreign Ministry, said the visit shows that Zelensky is a “project” of the United States that is bound to fail. Meanwhile, some hawkish pro-war commentators said the U.S. pullout from Afghanistan showed how the United States actually “supports its allies.”

Putin is due to address Russian lawmakers in a state-of-the-nation speech Tuesday that comes almost a year after he announced the invasion, which has fallen far short of Kremlin goals. Polls show flagging support among Russians for continuing the fight in Ukraine.

Officials said the traveling party was smaller than the entourage that usually accompanies the American president overseas. It included a handful of Biden’s closest aides, a medical team and security staff.

While planning took place over several months, Biden made a final decision to go forward with the visit on Friday.

During the visit, Biden and Zelensky held private talks at the Mariinsky Palace, a ceremonial baroque structure overlooking the Dnieper River in central Kyiv.

Zelensky said the discussion “brings us closer to victory,” according to a White House pool report. He noted that long-range missiles that the United States has not previously provided to Ukraine were now under discussion. The present moment, he added, was a “clear signal that Russia’s attempts of relaunch will have no chance.”

In Kyiv, the two leaders reflected on the opening moments of the full-scale invasion, nearly a year ago on the night of Feb. 24. Zelensky said his first call as the invasion began, after months of White House warnings, was to Washington.

Thousands of civilians fled Ukraine’s front lines. These people returned.

“You told me that you could hear explosions in the background,” Biden said in response. “I’ll never forget that.”

Biden said he had asked Zelensky that night how the United States could be of help and twice repeated what he said was the Ukrainian leader’s response: “Gather the leaders of the world. Ask them to support Ukraine.”

“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,” Biden said. “Perhaps even the end of Ukraine.”

“One year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands,” he said. “The Americans stand with you, and the world stands with you.”

Biden also stopped at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, which was closed for several months initially and now operates with a reduced footprint.

He is expected to deliver a speech Tuesday in Poland and meet with President Andrzej Duda and leaders of the Bucharest Nine, a group of mostly former Eastern bloc nations that came together after Russia annexed Crimea in 2014. Countries in that group are especially wary of Moscow’s expansionist aspirations.

Viser and Wootson reported from Warsaw. Kostiantyn Khudov in Kyiv and Mary Ilyushina and Natalia Abbakumova in Riga, Latvia, contributed to this report.