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Fake White House schedule, travel under darkness and a message to Russia: How US pulled off Biden’s secret visit to Ukraine

The president made a surprise trip to Ukraine on Monday to mark the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion and pledge additional US aid to the war-stricken nation

Rachel Sharp
Tuesday 21 February 2023 12:51 GMT
Joe Biden meets Volodymyr Zelensky in surprise visit to Ukraine

The US managed to pull off President Joe Biden’s top-secret trip to Ukraine with the help of a fake White House schedule, travel under the cover of darkness and a last-minute message to Russia.

The president made a surprise trip to Ukraine on Monday ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion and pledge additional US aid to the war-stricken nation.

In his first visit to the country since the start of the war, Mr Biden said he felt “it was important that the President of the United States be here the day that the attack began”.

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

Speculation had been growing in recent days that the US president may visit Ukraine this week, after the White House confirmed a two-day trip to Poland.

But, despite the rumours – and due to the obvious security concerns – White House officials repeatedly insisted there was no plan for a visit.

And so, the trip remained a closely guarded secret.

In reality, plans for an anniversary trip have actually been months in the making.

Deputy national security adviser Jon Finer told CNN after Monday’s visit that a small group of the president’s top aides, including officials from the chief of staff’s office, the National Security Council, the White House Military Office, the US Secret Service, the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community were planning the visit for several months, navigating the various risks.

The plans involved discussions between the highest levels of the US and Ukrainian governments, with Mr Biden regularly kept up to date on the developments.

Despite the extensive and lengthy planning, the visit was only given the final go-ahead on Friday – roughly 24 hours before the president jetted off aboard Air Force One.

President Joe Biden walks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy at St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral (via REUTERS)

That night, Mr Biden and top members of his national security team gathered in the Oval Office to weigh up the risks.

White House communications director Kate Bedingfield said that Mr Biden ultimately decided that it was a risk worth taking. “This was risk that Joe Biden wanted to take,” she said.

“It’s important to him to show up, even when it’s hard, and he directed his team to make it happen no matter how challenging the logistics,” she said.

Once the decision was made, the White House continued to throw the world off the scent.

Over the weekend, Mr Biden was cleverly spotted in public in Washington DC – in a perhaps obvious attempt to place him on US soil – as he went out for dinner with First Lady Jill Biden on Saturday evening.

While he was enjoying a meal out, around the same time, US officials were in fact contacting Russia to tell them about Mr Biden’s visit.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan said that the Kremlin was told Mr Biden was visiting Kyiv for “deconfliction purposes”.

The two leaders walk through Kyiv during the historic visit (via REUTERS)

Then, after Mr Biden’s dinner, he wasn’t seen in public again until he arrived in Kyiv on Monday morning.

His public schedule made no mention of the trip – with the White House instead releasing a schedule for Monday, which placed Mr Biden in Washington during the day before leaving for Warsaw that evening.

Pool reporters were also unaware Kyiv was their end destination when they boarded the president’s plane in the early hours of Sunday.

Mere hours after the dinner, Mr Biden left the White House at 3.30am on Sunday and Air Force One departed from Andrews Air Force Base at 4.15am.

Only a small handful of US officials joined the president on the journey – including Mr Sullivan, Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, and Oval Office Operations Director Annie Tomasini – along with a few pool reporters.

Only two journalists were on board instead of the usual complement of 13. Their electronic devices were powered off and turned over to the White House for the duration of the trip into Ukraine. A small number of journalists based in Ukraine were summoned to a downtown hotel on Monday morning to join them, not informed that Biden was visiting until shortly before his arrival.

At around 4am, the pool was told that Mr Biden had boarded the plane. Once he was, the call sign "SAM060," for Special Air Mission, was used for the plane instead of the usual "Air Force One."

After a refueling stop in Germany, Biden's aircraft switched off its transponder for the roughly hour-long flight to Rzeszow, Poland, the airport that has served as the gateway for billions of dollars in Western arms and VIP visitors into Ukraine.

An American official told The New York Times that the president then crossed the border into Ukraine by train – avoiding Ukrainian airspace.

Then, at around 8am local time on Monday, Mr Biden surprised much of the world by arriving in Kyiv.

Even with Western surface-to-air missile systems bolstering Ukraine's defenses, it was rare for a U.S. leader to travel to a conflict zone where the U.S. or its allies did not have control over the airspace. The US military does not have a presence in Ukraine other than a small detachment of Marines guarding the embassy in Kyiv, making Biden's visit more complicated.

While Biden was in Kyiv, U.S. surveillance planes, including E-3 Sentry airborne radar and an electronic RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft, were keeping watch over Kyiv from Polish airspace.

Only then was the pool allowed to send a pool report – and even then details of his route into the country was kept under wraps until he had left again.

Once in Kyiv, Mr Biden was greeted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky before the two leaders spoke about the allegiance between their nations and announced America’s new wave of sanctions on Russia and a half-billion dollar investment to aid Ukraine.

Speaking to reporters, Mr Biden said that the historic visit was to show that the US is “here to stay” in its support of Ukraine.

“We’re not leaving,” he said, saying that each of his visits to the country had proven “more significant” than the last.

“I thought it was critical that there not be any doubt, none whatsoever, about US support for Ukraine in the war,” he said.

“The Ukrainian people have stepped up in a way that few people ever have in the past.”

The president described the fight for Ukraine’s freedom from Russia as “about freedom of democracy at large”.

“It’s not just about freedom in Ukraine … It’s about freedom of democracy at large,” he said.

During a meeting inside the palace, Mr Zelensky described the visit as a “huge moment for Ukraine”.

“Thank you so much for coming Mr President at a huge moment for Ukraine,” he said.

Biden and Zelensky speak together ahead of the one-year anniversary of the war (AFP via Getty Images)

“What can I say, I really appreciate that President Biden, American society have been from the very beginning… of this war have been together with us.”

“I think that is a historical moment for our country,” he added of America’s ongoing support for Ukraine.

On arrival, Mr Biden travelled straight to Mariinsky Palace where he was warmly greeted by Mr  Zelensky and his wife Olena Zelenska.

The two leaders then entered the palace where Mr Zelensky was introduced to the small group of US officials and Mr Biden also met several top Ukrainian officials including Deputy prime minister Oleksandr Kubrakov and Minister of foreign affairs Dmytro Kuleba.

The two leaders then held a meeting inside the palace before leaving around two hours later and heading to St. Michael’s Gold-Domed Cathedral in central Kyiv – a building which has long been a symbol of Ukrainian resistance after it sheltered protesters from police acting under a Kremlin-backed president in 2013.

"Let's walk in and take a look," Mr Biden said, wearing his trademark aviator sunglasses against the glare. The presidents disappeared inside as heavily armed soldiers stood guard outside.

Cathedral bells chirped at the stroke of 11.30am followed shortly by air raid alarms, at 11.34am, just before the men reemerged.

There, the two leaders chatted and walked side by side around the outside of the building as air raid sirens rung out over the capital city – a stark reminder of the ongoing war.

After stepping inside for a few minutes, the pair then laid a wreath and took a moment of silence at the Wall of Remembrance for the Ukrainian soldiers and volunteers so far killed defending their country from Vladimir Putin’s forces.

During the visit, Mr Biden announced further US aid to Ukraine as the war enters its second year.

The US president pledged a half-billion dollars of additional military aid which will include more equipment, including artillery ammunition, more javelins and Howitzers.

The US is also issuing a fresh wave of sanctions on Russian elites and companies.

The visit lasted around five hours before Mr Biden travelled on to Poland where he will meet with Polish President Andrzej Duda this week.

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