Joe Biden visits Kyiv in major show of support for Ukraine

US president meets Volodymyr Zelenskiy days before first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion

Joe Biden has visited the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, defying threats of Russian missile attacks to announce a new package of additional US weapons supplies worth $500m (£415m), as Ukraine prepares to mark the sombre anniversary of last year’s full-scale Russian invasion.

The US president, closely surrounded by a large security detail, was escorted by his Ukrainian counterpart, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, on a walkabout around central Kyiv as air-raid sirens could be heard, confirming rumours of a visit that had been circulating during the morning.

Biden arrived in Kyiv after a 10-hour train journey from the Polish border, a route taken by other international leaders before him, and after leaving Washington in secrecy with a small group of officials and a small pool of reporters.

Arriving in the Ukrainian capital, Biden got a short first-hand taste of the terror that Ukrainians have lived with for close to a year as sirens sounded over the capital as he and Zelenskiy were exiting the gold-domed St Michael’s Cathedral.

In a post on his social media channels, Zelenskiy welcomed Biden to Kyiv posting a photograph of the two men standing in front of Ukrainian and US flags.

“Joseph Biden, welcome to Kyiv! Your visit is an extremely important sign of support for all Ukrainians,” he said on Telegram.

While US presidents have visited conflict areas before – including Iraq and Afghanistan – it is unusual for presidents to visit an area not under US air control, making his trip more reminiscent of John F Kennedy’s visit to Berlin in 1963 at the height of the cold war.

While the specifics of Biden’s visit remained unclear, it emerged that Washington had “basic communication with the Russians … to ensure deconfliction” immediately before the visit to avoid a dangerous misjudgement, although officials were cagey about what information was passed on.

Wearing a striped blue and yellow tie – the colours of Ukraine – Biden was filmed walking with Zelenskiy in Mikhailovsky Square and past the Mariinskyi Palace, the Ukrainian president’s official residence.

The visit came as it was disclosed that Biden would announce an additional $500m in military aid including artillery ammunition, anti-armour systems, and air surveillance radars in the coming days. The timing – before a planned address by Vladimir Putin – was seen as a deliberate rebuke of the Russian president.

In a statement issued by the White House, Biden said he was in Kyiv to reaffirm the US’s “unwavering and unflagging commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity”.

“When Putin launched his invasion nearly one year ago, he thought Ukraine was weak and the west was divided,” the statement said. “He thought he could outlast us. But he was dead wrong.”

Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Joe Biden in Kyiv on Monday.
Volodymyr Zelenskiy and Joe Biden in Kyiv on Monday. Photograph: Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images

Speaking later alongside Zelenskiy at Mariinsky Palace, Biden recalled the fears nearly a year ago that Russia’s invasion forces might quickly take the Ukrainian capital.

“One year later, Kyiv stands,” Biden said, jamming his finger for emphasis. “And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands. The Americans stand with you and the world stands with you.”

Zelenskiy said he and Biden spoke about “long-range weapons and the weapons that may still be supplied to Ukraine, even though it wasn’t supplied before”. But he did not detail any new commitments.

Amid tight security, and in a visit that appears to have been long in the planning, a number of key roads and central areas around the city were shut to traffic.

Rumours were swirling in the run-up to Biden’s planned Europe trip that he might meet Zelenskiy, either in Warsaw or at Poland’s border with Ukraine.

His visit to Kyiv, almost a year since the city was almost surrounded by Russian troops in the early days of the war, sends a strong signal of US support for Ukraine to Moscow and the international community, not least due to security concerns.

Serious planning for the highly sensitive visit appears to have accelerated in recent weeks. According to a Jim La Porta of Rolling Stone magazine, who had become aware of the visit in advance and was asked to keep it under wraps, Biden had been presented with an “array of plans” for this Ukraine trip including meeting Zelenskiy at the Polish border or in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv.

Biden, however, was reportedly insisted that he should visit Kyiv, which became a symbol of resistance in the early weeks of the war.

Fighting continues in the east of Ukraine and Russia regularly carries out missile attacks beyond the frontlines. On New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day several missiles hit civilian buildings and houses in Kyiv, killing at least five people and injuring dozens more.

Several major roads in the city centre were blocked off and a long motorcade of minibuses and armoured vehicles was filmed driving into the area.

Biden’s trip came as EU foreign ministers met in Brussels to discuss jointly procuring ammunition to provide to Ukraine. “It is the most urgent issue. If we fail on that, the result of the war is in danger,” the EU’s top diplomat, Josep Borrell, said before the meeting.

Politico reported on Sunday that the Biden administration was pressuring Ukraine to “consolidate its gains and perhaps launch its own counterstrike” as western analysts and officials said Russia was unable to launch a large-scale or surprise counteroffensive of its own.

Zelenskiy pushed for more western aid to speed up the war at the Munich security conference over the weekend, where western politicians expressed their continued support for Ukraine but failed to rally the global south behind the cause. Meanwhile, the US said China may be on the brink of supplying Russia with military aid. Beijing is said to be the only external actor that can influence Moscow and Chinese military support would give Russia a significant advantage.

Biden is the first US president to visit Ukraine since George W Bush in April 2008. As vice-president under Barack Obama, Biden would regularly visit Ukraine, striking up a close relationship with the former Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko.

“I don’t think the Russians would be surprised,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, the founder of R Politik, a political analysis firm. “It will be for them another proof that Washington has unambiguously chosen its camp … It’s a proof of total disruption with Russia, confirmation that now the west bets on the strategic defeat of Putin.”

Biden’s visit came a day before Putin was scheduled to give a state of the nation address that could bring a further Russian escalation in the war. “I am expecting that tomorrow Putin may be extremely hawkish with the west in his annual address,” said Stanovaya.


Peter Beaumont, Isobel Koshiw and Luke Harding in Kyiv

The GuardianTramp

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