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Biden's surprise Kyiv visit meets Ukrainian jubilation and Russian ire

Almost a year to the day after Russia’s invasion, Biden walks through Ukraine’s capital amid air raid sirens.

President Biden meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during an unannounced visit in Kyiv.
President Biden meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during an unannounced visit in Kyiv. (Evan Vucci/AP, Pool)

KYIV — President Biden arrived in Kyiv for a surprise six-hour visit Monday, meeting with Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky.

Rumors had abounded in the Ukrainian capital that someone special was visiting — there was an exceptionally high level of security, even in a city that has regularly hosted high-level foreign dignitaries over the past year. Whole sectors of the city center were closed to traffic and cordoned off, with significant numbers of Ukrainian police and security forces visible as Biden’s motorcade sped through.

The visit had been kept a closely guarded secret until the last minute, with only a select few high-level figures on both sides knowing the advance plans. On Monday morning, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba canceled a scheduled meeting with European foreign ministers in Brussels. His deputy foreign minister teased that a “surprise is being prepared in Kyiv in connection with the visit of high-ranking foreign guests.”

One of those apprised of the visit was Russian President Vladimir Putin. The White House said it had alerted the Kremlin to Biden’s trip in an effort to “deconflict” with Russia’s ongoing war. Though not without risk, the United States was in essence making its geopolitical adversary a fellow guarantor of Biden’s safety in an active war zone, the first time in recent American history that a commander in chief had traveled to one absent a sizable U.S. military presence.

Like everyone else, from high-ranking foreign dignitaries to journalists and an array of Western celebrities, Biden arrived in Kyiv by rail. His traveling party was reportedly uncharacteristically small, and his motorcade was missing the famous “beast,” the heavily armored Secret Service limousine that normally accompanies the president overseas.

The courtyard in front of St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery displays destroyed Russian armor.
The courtyard in front of St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery displays destroyed Russian armor. (Photo: Michael Weiss/Yahoo News)

Air raid sirens blared in the background as Biden joined Zelensky at St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery to pay tribute to Ukrainian soldiers who have been killed in Russia’s war against Ukraine. The alarm was the result of Ukrainian radar systems detecting a Russian MiG-31K taking off in Belarus, according to Ukrainian government sources. The Russian jet can carry a Kinzhal missile, which, flying at hypersonic speeds, is too fast to be intercepted by current Ukrainian air defenses, or to allow adequate warning to be given for people to seek shelter. It can also target almost any location inside the borders of Ukraine.

For months, the courtyard in front of St. Michael’s has been home to an exhibit of burned-out Russian tanks, armored personnel carriers and advanced air defense systems. Biden therefore stood mere feet away from Putin’s machinery of war, a good chunk of which was destroyed thanks to American defensive weaponry he had dispatched in bulk to Ukraine.

At a joint press conference with the Ukrainian president, Biden praised Ukrainian resilience and declared his “unwavering support” for the country. He also directed his ire at Putin, saying the Russian autocrat “thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided. ... He thought he could outlast us. I don’t think he’s thinking that right now. God knows what he’s thinking, but I don’t think he’s thinking that. He’s been plain wrong.”

Russian state media scrambled to explain Biden’s trip, claiming that Moscow had given Biden “security guarantees” to make the visit possible.

Meanwhile, Russian reaction on social media was a mixture of anger and incredulity.

“Almost a year after the beginning of the special military operation, we were waiting for the President of the Russian Federation to visit the Russian city of Kyiv, not the President of the United States,” an account closely connected to the Russian military complained on Telegram. Former FSB officer Igor Girkin — a perennial critic of Moscow’s current conduct in the war — suggested dryly that Biden could probably visit the frontlines in Bakhmut and “nothing would happen to him.”

President Biden participates in a wreath-laying ceremony with President Zelensky at the memorial wall outside St. Michael's Golden-Domed Cathedral.
President Biden participates in a wreath-laying ceremony with President Zelensky at the memorial wall outside St. Michael's Golden-Domed Cathedral. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Ukrainians reacted to Biden’s visit with a mixture of gratitude and characteristic humor. Memes quickly spread of Biden supposedly standing outside one of the Ukrainian capital’s coffee shops, enjoying an ice cream in front of a famous local hot dog stand, and taking a ride on the Kyiv Metro.

At the political level, Ukrainian officials were universally effusive in their praise for Biden’s visit. Kuleba, the foreign minister, praised the trip as a “victory for the Ukrainian people,'' while Zelensky called it “the most important visit of the whole history of U.S.-Ukraine relations.”

In addition to the warm words, Biden used the occasion to announce another $500 million military assistance package for the country. The latest tranche contains more Javelin antitank guided missiles, more artillery, more radar systems and more ammunition. Not mentioned were two of Kyiv’s most sought-after pieces of military hardware: F-16 fighter jets and ATACMS tactical ballistic missiles.

Biden’s visit lasted six hours. As he was leaving Ukraine, he repeated the remarks he had made after meeting Zelensky outside his presidential residence. Writing on Twitter in both English and Ukrainian, Biden said, “One year later, Kyiv stands. Ukraine stands.”