KIEV, Ukraine (AP) – President Joe Biden paid an unannounced visit to Ukraine on Monday to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a gesture of solidarity that comes days ahead of the one-year anniversary Russia’s invasion of the country.
Biden delivered remarks and met with Zelensky at the Mariinsky Palace to announce an additional half-billion dollars in US aid and pledge American and allied support to Ukraine as the conflict rages on.
The US leader recalled fears almost a year ago that Russia’s invading forces could quickly take the Ukrainian capital. “A year later, Kiev is standing,” Biden said, jamming his finger to emphasize his booth, which was adorned with the flags of the US and Ukraine. “Ukraine stands. democracy stands. Americans are with you and the world is with you.”
The visit to Ukraine comes at a crucial time in the war as Biden seeks to keep allies united in their support for Ukraine as the war is expected to intensify and both sides prepare for spring offensives. Zelenskyy is urging allies to expedite delivery of promised weapons systems, and is doing so Call for the West to deliver fighter jets to Ukraine — something Biden has so far refused to do.
Zelenskyy said he and Biden discussed “long-range weapons and the weapons that may still be delivered to Ukraine even though they weren’t delivered before.” However, he did not name any new commitments.
Biden’s mission, with his visit to Kiev — and then Warsaw — is to underscore that the United States stands ready to hold on to Ukraine “as long as necessary” to hold off Russian forces, even as opinion polls suggest it may not the US and allies support the supply of arms and direct economic aid has begun to wane. For Zelenskyy, the symbolism is to have the US President standing side by side with him on Ukrainian soil the anniversary is approaching is no small feat as it spurs US and European allies to provide more advanced weapons and increase the pace of delivery.
“I thought it was crucial that there was no doubt whatsoever about US support for Ukraine in the war,” Biden said.
The visit also gives Biden an opportunity to see first-hand the devastation wrought in Ukraine by the Russian invasion. Thousands of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have been killed, millions of refugees have fled the war, and Ukraine has suffered tens of billions of dollars in infrastructure damage.
The trip is also an act of defiance against Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had hoped his military would overrun Kiev within days. A year later, the Ukrainian capital is standing and some semblance of normality has returned to the city as fighting has focused on the east of the country, punctuated by cruise missile and drone strikes on military and civilian infrastructure.
Biden, a Democrat, also got a brief taste of the terror Ukrainians have been living with for nearly a year as air raid sirens wailed over the capital as he and Zelenskyy exited the gold-domed St. Michael’s Cathedral they visited together. With solemn expressions, they continued undeterred as they laid a wreath and observed a minute’s silence at the memorial wall in honor of Ukrainian soldiers killed since 2014.
Although western surface-to-air missile systems have strengthened Ukraine’s defenses, the visit marked the rare occasion when a US president has traveled to a conflict zone where the US or its allies had no airspace control. It was not immediately clear whether the US had announced the trip to Moscow in advance to avoid miscalculations that could bring the two nuclear-armed nations into direct conflict.
The US military has no presence in Ukraine apart from a small detachment of Marines guarding the embassy in Kiev, making Biden’s visit more complicated than other recent visits to war zones by previous US leaders.
Speculation has been piling up for weeks that Biden would visit Ukraine around February 24, the anniversary of the Russian invasion. But the White House had repeatedly said no presidential trip to Ukraine was planned, even after the visit to Poland was announced earlier this month.
Since early Monday morning, many main streets and central blocks in Kiev have been cordoned off without any official explanation. Later, people began sharing videos of long queues of cars driving through streets where access was restricted.
At the White House, planning for Biden’s visit to Kiev was tightly held due to security concerns — with a relatively small group of aides briefed on the plans.
When asked by a reporter Friday whether Biden might schedule stops outside of Poland, White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby replied, “For now, the trip will be in Warsaw.” Moments later — and without prompting — Kirby added : “I said ‘now’. The journey goes to — to Warsaw. I didn’t want to make it sound like I was alluding to a change.
Biden quietly departed from Joint Base Andrews near Washington just after 4 a.m. Sunday and made a stopover at Ramstein Air Base in Germany before heading to Ukraine.
Other Western leaders have traveled to Kiev since the war began.
In June, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and then-Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi traveled together by night train to Kiev to meet with Zelenskyy. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visited Kiev in November shortly after taking office.
This is Biden’s first visit as President to a war zone. His most recent predecessors, Donald Trump, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, made surprise visits to Afghanistan and Iraq during their presidencies to meet with US troops and the leaders of those countries.
Madhani and Miller reported from Washington.
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