After a week of freezing temperatures, Kyiv woke on Monday morning to a perfect blue sky. Spring had arrived. And so had someone else. The centre of the Ukrainian capital with its cobbled streets and ethereal gold-domed churches was mysteriously closed off. The main Zhytomyr Avenue – the route in from the west of the country – was shut too. Even the trains were late.
Since Russia’s full-scale invasion a year ago, numerous foreign leaders have come to Kyiv to meet Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. But Monday’s security measures were unprecedented. As videos circulated of a vast cavalcade of vehicles speeding through the centre of the city the rumours reached fever pitch. Could they be true? Sometime after breakfast it turned out they were – Joe Biden was in town, dropping by for an extraordinary visit.
It wasn’t immediately clear how the US president had reached Kyiv, arriving at 8am local time. It is a city without a functioning airport. A seasoned traveller on Amtrak, he appears to have got there by train. Since last autumn Russian warplanes have fired ballistic missiles at the capital, in an attempt to destroy its infrastructure and to immiserate its citizens. Nobody quite knows where the next bomb will fall, or when.
A decision to go to Ukraine was made only on Friday, after a huddle of top officials in the Oval Office, the White House said. The visit was meticulously planned. The Biden administration informed Moscow about the trip a few hours after the president took off early on Sunday from Andrews air force base in Maryland. The Russians were briefed for “deconfliction reasons”, officials in Washington said.
Whatever the long route to Kyiv, the images on Monday morning told their own remarkable story. Biden and Zelenskiy emerged together from St Michael’s Cathedral, one of an ensemble of religious buildings in the ancient heart of the city. In front of them was St Sophia, a second great cathedral built in the 11th century, when Moscow was just bog and forest.
The pair went on a brief walkabout. As they passed a mural of St Michael and his angels, an air raid siren rang out. For Kyivans this was business as usual. But it underscored the huge symbolic importance of Biden’s visit, ahead of the anniversary on Friday of Russia’s bloody invasion. And it said something too, perhaps, about the 80-year-old president’s steely and daring resolve.
The visit is arguably the most consequential made by any US president to a European country since the end of the cold war. Vladimir Putin’s original military aims – to conquer and subjugate Ukraine – are unchanged. He is poised to launch a major new offensive. Its goal is to capture the entirety of the Donbas region in the east, and whatever new land Russia can grab.
Over the past year Kyiv has staged an astonishing fightback. It has recovered about half of the territory Moscow seized in the first dark weeks of the conflict. But, Ukrainians recognise, winning the war will be tough. It can happen only with continuing western military and financial assistance. The US is the biggest contributor by far and an existential partner.
Proof that this aid was working was on show outside the cathedral. In front of Biden was an exhibition of rusting Russian tanks and gutted armoured personnel carriers, destroyed last spring during Putin’s doomed attempt to seize the capital. They have become a sombre tourist attraction.
The US president stood in front of a memorial wall to pro-democracy protesters who were shot dead in 2014, when they demonstrated against Ukraine’s corrupt previous Russian-backed government. Monday was the ninth anniversary of their deaths. The uprising was a defining moment in Ukraine’s long and unfinished journey, from Soviet colony to a democratic and aspiring European Union state.
Earlier, Biden’s convoy rolled up the hill to the Mariinskyi palace, the Ukrainian president’s pistachio-coloured official residence. Once a home for the Russian tsar, it is decorated in neoclassical style and has a mazy view over the Dnipro River. The US president emerged from his car, smiling. He took off his sunglasses. Zelenskiy and his wife, Olena, were waiting on the steps to meet him.
“Thank you for coming,” Zelenskiy said, as he shook Biden’s hand.
“More importantly, how are the children?” Biden asked, while adding: “It’s amazing to see you.”
Inside the gilt-decorated reception hall, Biden delivered an unambiguous message. It was one, moreover, that was designed to goad Russia’s leader, who had believed victory in Ukraine would be swift and almost painless.
“Putin thought Ukraine was weak and the west was divided,” Biden said. “He thought he could outlast us. I don’t think he’s thinking that right now. He’s just been plain wrong.”
Flanked by Zelenskiy, Biden said: “One year later, the evidence is right here in this room. We stand here together. Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands.” The US president promised $500m (£416m) more of military assistance, in the shape of javelins, howitzers and artillery ammunition. There was no announcement on Zelenskiy’s request – repeated during his recent trip to London – for modern fighter jets.
Biden reminded his host that the US had correctly predicted early last year that Putin was going to invade. He recalled how they spoke by phone as Russian tanks first crossed the border and war planes roared in the sky. “You told me that you could hear explosions in the background,” Biden said. “I’ll never forget that. The world was about to change.” America’s support was “unwavering” and politically bipartisan, he underlined.
Kyiv residents said they were delighted by Biden’s impromptu visit. “It was a surprise. Nobody expected him. It’s pretty dangerous here,” Andriy Lytvyn, 20, pointed out. He added: “This is a part of history. It proves Russia has failed.” He and his friend Arkadiy had cycled to the plaza outside St Michael’s Cathedral – the quickest way to get around, with Kyiv locked down – in the hope of glimpsing the president.
“Biden came to show that the US supports us. The whole world can now see it,” Feyodor Konalenko added. How might Putin react? “He will be upset, obviously. The fact that we have such a big and powerful state on our side means that he can’t get his own way. Things turned out differently from how he expected. Everything has changed since the early days when it looked like we would lose. Now I expect Ukraine to win.”
A group of police officers guarding the square were full of jokes and smiles. So was the Ukrainian internet. It lit up with a playful meme directed at Kremlin bloggers – shcho z oblychiam?, or “why the sad face?”
Zelenskiy’s aides hailed the trip as the most important moment ever in Ukrainian-American relations and a day to remember. An opinion poll released on Monday suggested 90% of Ukrainians had a positive view of the US.
Olexsandr Rudyk, an 87-year-old pensioner and nuclear scientist, said he had run to the cathedral to see Biden. His legs didn’t get him there in time, he lamented. “I did photograph Bill Clinton when he came to Kyiv in 2000,” he recounted. He added: “Our major mistake was to underestimate Russia’s desire to start a full-scale war. We are grateful to Biden. With America’s help we will kick them out.”