Biden makes surprise visit to Ukraine for first time since

Biden makes surprise visit to Ukraine for first time since full-scale war began

WARSAW, Poland (CNN) President Joe Biden slipped into Kiev on Monday for the first time since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly a year ago, and in a dramatic personal way demonstrated his commitment to the country and its struggle at the start of the war War an uncertain new phase.

The top-secret visit — which came as air raid sirens rang out across Kiev as Biden walked alongside President Volodymyr Zelenskyy around the gold-domed St. Michael’s Cathedral — comes at a critical moment in the 12-month conflict. Russia is preparing for an expected spring offensive and Ukraine is hoping to retake territory soon.

Biden announced half a billion dollars in new aid and said the package would include more military equipment like artillery shells, more javelins and howitzers. And he said new sanctions would be imposed on Moscow later this week.

“A year later, Kiev is standing. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands,” said Biden.

The United States and other Western nations have shipped arms, tanks and ammunition to Ukraine in hopes of changing the tide of the war. Through his personal visit, Biden offers a unique picture of American support for Zelensky, who has spent the past year rallying the world behind his nation and pleading for more support.

Biden arrived in Kyiv at 8 a.m. local time after a long, covert journey from Washington. His motorcade arrived at the Mariinsky Palace half an hour later.

“Thank you for coming,” said Zelenskyy, shaking hands with Biden.

February 20, 2023, Ukraine, Kiev: US President Joe Biden (M, l) visits the St. Sophia Cathedral in the capital together with Volodymyr Zelenskyy (M, r), President of Ukraine. Here Biden laid a wreath. Photo: Kay Nietfeld/dpa (Photo by Kay Nietfeld/Picture Alliance via Getty Images)

A visit with high stakes

Biden’s visit was a highly symbolic moment, coming a day before a scheduled speech by Russian President Vladimir Putin to mark the anniversary of the war. From Kiev, Biden declared that Putin’s “war of conquest had failed”.

“Putin thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided,” said Biden, standing next to Zelenskyy. “He thought he could outlive us. I don’t think he’s thinking that right now.”

“He was just wrong,” Biden said of Putin. “A year later, the proof is right here in this room. We stand here together.”

During their talks at the presidential palace, Biden laid out his reasons for visiting the Ukrainian capital as the war enters its second year.

“I thought it was crucial that there was no doubt whatsoever about US support for Ukraine in the war,” Biden said.

“The Ukrainian people have developed in a way that few people in the past have ever done,” he added.

Biden stressed that there was broad, bipartisan support for the Ukrainian cause in Washington.

“Despite all the disagreements we have in our Congress on some issues, there is a significant consensus on support for Ukraine,” he said.

“It’s not just about freedom in Ukraine. … It’s about the freedom of democracy as a whole,” he said.

Very mysterious journey

Biden’s trip to Kiev was classified, reflecting strong security concerns. Air Force One departed Joint Base Andrews Sunday at 4:15 a.m. ET under cover of darkness, and reporters aboard the plane were not allowed to take their devices with them.

Biden’s public schedule did not reflect the trip, and White House officials said repeatedly last week that a visit to Ukraine was not in the works.

On the Saturday night before he left, Biden had gone out to dinner with his wife in Washington. He was not seen in public until his arrival in Kiev on Monday morning.

Ukraine is an active war zone over which the US military has no control, making Monday’s visit different from previous trips by the president to Iraq or Afghanistan. White House officials repeatedly ruled out a visit earlier this year.

Biden is traveling with a relatively small entourage, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, and Personal Assistant Annie Tomasini.

Zelenskyy himself traveled to Washington in December to meet Biden in the Oval Office and address a joint session of Congress – his first trip outside of Ukraine since the war began.

The Ukrainian leader invited Biden to visit Kiev months ago and said he believes it is important for the US leader to see the situation up close.

“I think he’s the leader of the United States, and that’s why he should come here to see it,” Zelensky said in April during an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. As recently as last week, Zelensky said his invitation to Biden to visit Ukraine remained open, although he acknowledged there were other means for her to speak.

“President Biden and I meet occasionally. You know we invited the President. I think he will be happy to visit Ukraine if he has the chance. That would be an important signal to support our nation,” Zelenskyi said on February 15.

The trip comes ahead of Biden’s planned two-day visit to Poland. The president is due to be in Warsaw on Tuesday, where he will meet with Polish President Andrzej Duda, the White House said on Sunday.

US President Joe Biden with President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the Presidential Palace in Ukraine. Photo credit: Pool

Biden’s visit follows the trips of other world leaders

Biden has been itching to visit Ukraine for months, especially after several of his European counterparts made long train journeys to meet Zelenskyy in Kyiv. French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, as well as former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson have all visited the country to show their support.

Several of Biden’s top lieutenants, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, have also visited the Ukrainian capital to promise fresh aid. High-ranking administration officials, including CIA Director Bill Burns and senior White House officials, visited Kiev last month.

Even Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, paid a surprise visit to a small town in far southwest Ukraine on Mother’s Day last year. She met with Zelenska at a former school converted into temporary housing for displaced Ukrainians, including 48 children.

But safety precautions prevented Biden from making a similar trip. When he visited Poland in April last year, the White House didn’t even explore the possibility of a trip across the border, although Biden said he had expressed an interest.

“They won’t – understandably, I think – let me cross the border and see what’s going on in Ukraine,” he said at the time.

Now, as the war nears its one-year mark on February 24, Biden hopes to show the world his commitment to Ukraine, though it remains unclear how much longer US and Western resolve can last.

When asked about the importance of being in Kiev, Biden said it was his eighth visit to the city. “More significant each time,” Biden said.

He added that the purpose of his visit is to convey to Zelenskyy that the US is “here to stay”.

“We’re not going,” Biden said.

US officials have privately expressed hope that the massive influx of weapons into Ukraine – which include new vehicles, long-range missiles and Patriot air defense systems – can help Ukraine assert itself on the battlefield and put Zelenskyy in a stronger position, to negotiate an end to the war.

But it remains unclear what parameters Zelenskyy might be willing to accept in peace talks, and the US has steadfastly refused to define what an agreement might look like, other than that it will be up to Zelenskyy to decide.

US President Joe Biden signs the guest book at Ukraine’s Presidential Palace while Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy looks on.

Concerns about China’s support for Russia

Biden’s visit to Ukraine also comes amid growing US concerns about China’s support for the Russian military.

American officials told CNN on Saturday the US had recently begun to see “worrying” trends and there were signs Beijing was planning to “sneak up on the line” to deliver lethal military aid to Moscow without getting caught.

The officials would not describe in detail what intelligence information the US has seen that points to a recent change in China’s stance, but said US officials were concerned enough to share the intelligence information with allies and partners at the Munich Security Conference had shared in the past few days.

Blinken raised the issue when he met with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on the sidelines of the conference on Saturday, officials said.

Wang, who was named Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s top foreign policy adviser last month, is expected to arrive in Moscow this week as part of the first visit to the country by a Chinese official in that capacity since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

According to China’s Foreign Ministry, Wang’s visit will provide an opportunity for China and Russia to further develop their strategic partnership and “exchange views” on “international and regional hotspot issues of common interest” — a catch-all term often used to allude to issues such as the war in Ukraine.

This is a breaking story and will be updated.

CNN’s Nectar Gan contributed to this report.