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The Secret Service Opposed Biden’s Trip to Ukraine. Here’s Why He Went Anyway

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Updated: | Originally published:

U.S. President Joe Biden made a surprise stop in Kyiv Monday, ahead of a scheduled trip to Poland four days before the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

Against the wishes of the secret service and the Pentagon, Biden arrived in the besieged capital following a covert operation to conceal his whereabouts, which involved a 10-hour train ride from the Polish border. Many gathered in Heaven’s Hundred Square, which was barricaded and surrounded by military and police officials, to spot Biden.

Air raid sirens sounded across the capital as Biden and Ukraine’s President, Volodymyr Zelensky, left St. Michael’s Cathedral in central Kyiv.

Read More: Inside Zelensky’s World

At a press conference Monday, Zelensky said, “This is the most important visit in the whole history of the Ukraine-U.S. relationship.”

Biden has long framed his administration’s support for Ukraine as central to revitalizing both U.S. ties with Europe and the liberal international order.

Here’s what to know about Biden’s trip, from what’s on the agenda, to Washington’s renewed military commitments, and how the world reacted.

Why did Biden go to Ukraine?

The surprise visit can only be read as a major show of U.S. support for Ukraine. In a White House press statement issued Monday, Biden said his visit aimed to “reaffirm our unwavering and unflagging commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.”

U.S. President Joe Biden walks next to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in front of St. Michaels Golden-Domed Cathedral as he arrives for a visit in Kyiv on Feb, 20, 2023.DIMITAR DILKOFF—AFP via Getty Images

“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. But he was dead wrong,” he said of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

In a press conference Monday, Biden said, “Russia’s aim was to wipe Ukraine off the map. Putin’s war of conquest is failing. Russia’s military has lost half the territory it once occupied.”

Analysts have said the trip is an important boost for troop morale. But it is also aimed at the U.S. public, as maintaining domestic support for Ukraine remains essential for Kyiv’s war efforts.

What is the Day of the Heroes of Heavenly Hundred?

Biden’s trip came as Ukraine marked the Day of the Heroes of Heavenly Hundred, which commemorates the 107 lives lost by those who fought in anti-government protests in 2014.

The 2014 events, which Ukrainians call the Revolution of Dignity, prompted Russian President Vladimir Putin—concerned about Ukraine moving toward the West—to annex Crimea that year and back separatist forces in eastern Ukraine.

“It’s presumptuous of me to say this, but I thought it was important that the President of the United States be here the day that the attack began,” Biden said during a meeting with Zelensky at at Mariinsky Palace, “because as the president remembers, I was warning the world that Putin was going to attack.”

He added: “I thought it was critical that there not be any doubt, none whatsoever, about U.S. support for Ukraine in the war.”

What new U.S. military assistance has been announced?

The White House press statement said that the U.S. will provide further military aid including artillery ammunition, anti-armor systems, and air surveillance radars to better defend Ukraine’s skies. It also said that further sanctions would be issued on companies and individuals who support Russia’s war efforts.

A $500 military aid package will be announced Tuesday and it will include more ammunition for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) in Ukraine’s possession. The anti-armor weapons include Javelin shoulder-launched missiles that are capable of destroying tanks.

Zelensky said he and Biden discussed the demand for more advanced Western weapons, calling the U.S. decision to send Abrams tanks of “historic importance.”

“We’ve also talked about long-range weapons and the weapons that may still be supplied to Ukraine—even though have not been supplied before,” Zelensky added.

Zelensky has been calling on Western allies to deliver F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine, which the U.S. has declined to do so far. European partners, however, have expressed a willingness to consider sending NATO fighter jets.

How Biden’s trip was kept secret

Biden reportedly had dinner with his wife Saturday in Washington, D.C. and later departed on Air Force One under the cover of darkness. Biden later took a train from the Polish border to reach the Ukrainian capital.

The White House’s public schedule for Biden showed him as in Washington until Monday evening, where he would depart for Poland from. It had been rumored that Biden could meet Zelensky, near Poland’s border with Ukraine or in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

Biden arrived in Kyiv at 8 a.m. local time and was greeted by the U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink. “It’s good to be back in Kyiv,” Biden reportedly said. He was joined by a small team, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and some reporters, who were not allowed to bring any devices on board, CNN reported.

Sullivan has confirmed the presidential delegation did notify Russia about Biden’s trip to Kyiv. The trip had been in the works for a few months, but a “go” decision was made on Friday, the BBC reported.

Ukrainian honor guards stand in font of the Wall of Remembrance for the Deceased for Ukraine as U.S. President visits Ukrainian President for a meeting in Kyiv on Feb. 20, 2023.DIMITAR DILKOFF—AFP via Getty Images

Where is Biden heading to next in Europe?

Biden reportedly left Kyiv Monday afternoon local time, the BBC reported.

He is scheduled to travel to Poland Monday and meet President Andrzej Duda Tuesday morning and deliver a speech from Warsaw Castle that same day. The speech is expected to pledge further support for Ukraine and reinforce the NATO alliance.

Biden is also expected to host talks with the leaders of the Bucharest Nine—including Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania, and Slovakia—while in Warsaw.

How is the world reacting to Biden’s Ukraine trip?

Since news of Biden’s trip broke, Japan has offered new financial support to Ukraine worth $5.5 billion, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida said Monday. “There is still a need to assist people whose livelihoods have been destroyed by the war, and to restore destroyed infrastructure,” Kishida said. The Japanese leader also announced that he would host a virtual meeting for G7 leaders and Zelensky on Friday, the official one-year anniversary of the invasion.

A spokesperson for the German government also praised Biden’s trip during a press conference Monday. Steffen Hebestreit described the move as a “good signal,” but declined to comment further.

Meanwhile, Turkey announced that it is no longer exporting products that can be used to bolster Russia’s war efforts. According to the country’s foreign minister Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu, Washington warned Ankara about the sale of chemicals, microchips, and more.

“It is not true that we have exported to Russia products that can be used in the defense industry,” Çavuşoğlu said. “We asked the United States to notify [us] if there are any violations on this issue,” he added.

The comments were made after U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Çavuşoğlu, where he vowed to uphold U.S. and European sanctions.

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