Laura King and Courtney Subramanian
Los Angeles Times
KYIV, Ukraine — President Joe Biden secretly slipped into Kyiv on Monday for a historic visit to show U.S. solidarity with war-torn Ukraine, pledging more military aid and declaring Russian leader Vladimir Putin to be “dead wrong” in his underestimate of Western support and resolve.
Biden’s surprise visit, his first as president, comes four days ahead of the first anniversary of Moscow’s invasion of its neighbor, which has devastated parts of Ukraine but drawn fierce resistance and galvanized the West into pouring in assistance. In a reminder of the risks of such a trip, air-raid sirens wailed in Kyiv, the capital, during Biden’s visit.
Appearing together with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the heavily fortified presidential palace, Biden said that Ukraine’s resilience over the last year had been “astounding” and that “the whole world sees it.” The U.S., he said, would support Kyiv “as long as it takes” to repel the Russian invasion, which began Feb. 24, 2022.
“That dark night one year ago, the world was literally bracing for the fall of Kyiv … perhaps even the end of Ukraine,” said Biden, clad in a suit and a blue and yellow tie — the colors of the Ukrainian flag. “One year later, Kyiv stands, and Ukraine stands. Democracy stands. … The world stands with you.”
He noted that he had already visited Ukraine six times as vice president during the Obama administration. “Kyiv has captured a part of my heart,” Biden said.
Zelenskyy, in his trademark dark sweatshirt, khaki pants and boots, embraced the U.S. president, calling the visit a “great honor” and thanking him for his leadership in marshaling the Western alliance supporting Ukraine.
In a statement issued by the White House after his arrival, Biden said the U.S. would make another delivery of critical equipment to Ukraine, including artillery ammunition, anti-armor systems and air surveillance radars.
“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,” Biden said in the statement.
Biden is scheduled to arrive in Warsaw on Tuesday to mark the anniversary of the invasion, meet with allies and deliver a major address on continued Western efforts to help Kyiv fend off Moscow’s forces. But there had been rumors that he might make an unannounced stop in Ukraine.
Tangible indications of Biden’s presence came Monday morning in the center of a cold and sunny Kyiv, where several major streets were blocked off by police barricades and black-clad officers in bulletproof vests turned passersby away. As word spread of a possible high-level U.S. visit, people clustered near the barricades, asking one another: “Biden?”
Their guess was confirmed when Biden, wearing aviator sunglasses, could be seen walking side by side with Zelenskyy near a memorial wall bearing the photographs of fallen Ukrainian soldiers.
Bystanders were surprised but largely delighted.
“He’s a hero! It’s quite risky, don’t you agree?” said Galyna Reshetnyk, 40, who learned of Biden’s presence when she emerged from the subway a few blocks from where he and Zelenskyy had their brief walkabout. “And this air alert — life here is difficult, and he will see that for himself.”
The hubbub in downtown Kyiv centered on landmark St. Michael’s monastery, dedicated to the archangel Michael. For months, the broad plaza in front of the golden-domed complex has contained a display of rusting, half-ruined Russian tanks and armored vehicles, a popular attraction in the wartime capital. The area surrounding the U.S. Embassy was blocked off as well.
Biden’s secrecy-shrouded trip comes after the heads of other NATO nations, including the leaders of Britain, France and Germany, have all made their own pilgrimages to Kyiv to express their support of the effort to repel Russia’s invasion. But Biden’s visit is the strongest signal yet of Western solidarity with Ukraine, and comes as Zelenskyy girds his country for heavier fighting to come.
Zelenskyy has been unwavering in his quest for more weaponry from Ukraine’s backers to try to turn the tide of the war. He has succeeded in receiving pledges of tanks, once considered a no-go by the likes of Germany, and is now pressing for F-16 fighter jets and other advanced weapons systems in preparation for an expected Russian offensive in the spring. The Biden administration has so far resisted sending warplanes that require complex training, but White House officials haven’t ruled it out.
Ukraine wants the kind of heavy weaponry that would allow it to launch a spring offensive and regain much-needed battlefield momentum.
Biden’s visit to an active war zone represented a bold gesture of support at a time when U.S. public backing for billions of dollars in military aid remains strong but has waned somewhat since the war’s early months. Some far-right congressional Republicans have demanded cutbacks in aid.
A bloody stalemate currently prevails on the front lines in Ukraine’s east, hundreds of miles from Kyiv. Russian forces have been attempting to mount an offensive near beleaguered Bakhmut but have not managed to seize the town — a prize many thought Putin would try to brandish in time for the invasion’s anniversary Friday.
Many Ukrainians are on edge, anticipating the possibility of a major air attack on Kyiv. Moscow’s forces for months have been targeting Ukrainian cities and infrastructure targets with rockets, drones and missiles, although the latest such attack on Kyiv was more than a week ago.
Since October, Russia has launched more than a dozen waves of strikes aimed at crippling Ukraine’s power grid with the onset of winter, but in the capital, at least, that effort seems to have largely fizzled, with outages becoming a relative rarity. In addition, the winter has been a fairly mild one, frustrating the Kremlin’s effort to sap morale by leaving Ukrainians in the cold and dark.
(King reported from Kyiv and Subramanian from London.)
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