President Biden made a surprise trip to the capital of embattled Ukraine on Monday, traveling under a cloak of secrecy into a war zone to demonstrate what he called America’s “unwavering support” for the effort to beat back Russian forces nearly a year after they invaded the country.
Mr. Biden arrived early Monday morning to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky after a 10-hour overnight train ride through Ukraine, and the two stepped out into the streets of Kyiv even as an air-raid siren sounded, a dramatic moment that underscored the investment the United States has made in Ukraine’s independence.
“One year later, Kyiv stands,” Mr. Biden declared at Mr. Zelensky’s side in Mariinsky Palace, the gilded ceremonial home of the Ukrainian president. “And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands.”
“Thank you so much for coming, Mr. President, at a huge moment for Ukraine,” Mr. Zelensky said.
In Kyiv for just five hours, Mr. Biden promised to release another $500 million in military aid in coming days, mentioning artillery ammunition, Javelin missiles and Howitzers, but he did not talk about the advanced arms that Ukraine has sought. Mr. Zelensky told reporters that he and the American president had spoken about “long-range weapons and the weapons that may still be supplied to Ukraine, even though it wasn’t supplied before.”
Mr. Biden joined Mr. Zelensky for a visit to St. Michael’s monastery in downtown Kyiv, where the sun glittered off the golden domes as the air-raid alarm wailed. Trailing two soldiers bearing a wreath, the two leaders walked along the Wall of Remembrance, with portraits of more than 4,500 soldiers who have died since Russia illegally annexed Crimea in 2014 and first fomented a rebellion in eastern Ukraine.
The air-raid alarm had stopped by the time Mr. Biden got back into his motorcade and departed the monastery, and alarms sound almost daily in Kyiv, but the blare of the siren added to the bristling tension of the moment. Ukrainian officials have been warning that Russia plans a large-scale missile bombardment timed to the anniversary of the war on Friday.
The alarm on Monday morning was triggered by a Russian MIG fighter jet taking off in Belarus, which borders Ukraine to the north. A missile from a MIG fired from Belarus can hit a target in Kyiv in under 20 minutes.
The White House alerted Russian officials that Mr. Biden would be traveling to Kyiv several hours before he arrived in Ukraine, in an effort to “deconflict” with Russian military forces operating in the country, Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, told reporters on Monday.
Mr. Biden was already scheduled to arrive in Warsaw on Tuesday morning for a two-day visit, and White House officials had repeatedly brushed off questions about whether he might also travel to Ukraine. The White House on Sunday night issued a public schedule for Monday showing the president still in Washington and leaving in the evening for Warsaw, when he was already half a world away.
The president has made American support for Ukraine the centerpiece of his argument for a revitalized alliance in Europe, and he had told advisers that he wanted to mark the anniversary of the invasion as a way of reassuring allies that his administration remained committed.
Mr. Sullivan said that Mr. Biden made a final decision to go to Ukraine during a huddle with top advisers and security officials in the Oval Office on Friday. Planning for the trip had been underway for months, but knowledge about it was highly limited, even within the White House and the Pentagon.
Even by the standards of past presidential trips into war zones, Mr. Biden’s 40-hour journey in and out of Kyiv was remarkable.
He slipped out of Washington in the dark of night without notice.
Traveling on an Air Force C-32 often used to fly into smaller airports during domestic travel, Mr. Biden took off at 4:15 a.m. Sunday. Just two reporters, sworn to secrecy and deprived of their telephones for almost 24 hours, were brought with him, along with Mr. Sullivan; Jen O’Malley Dillon, the deputy chief of staff; and Annie Tomasini, the director of Oval Office operations.
After landing in Poland and making his way to the Przemyśl Główny train station on the border with Ukraine, Mr. Biden — long a fan of train travel as a senator and vice president — rolled through the night toward Kyiv, the shades of the purple train’s large square windows mostly drawn.
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At roughly 8 a.m., Mr. Biden’s train stopped at the Kyiv-Pasazhyrsky station, where Bridget Brink, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, was waiting for the president. The morning air was chilly, and the platform had been cleared of people.
The reporters traveling with him were allowed to send a pool report to other journalists only after Mr. Biden’s arrival and were not permitted to further describe how he had traveled to Kyiv while he was still in the country.
Mr. Sullivan described the president’s visit to Kyiv as “not a celebration but an affirmation of commitment, of the resilience of the Ukrainian people.” He said the president had decided that sending that message was worth the risk of traveling to a country at war, where the United States has no troops on the ground and only a very small diplomatic presence.
It was an arduous journey for an 80-year-old president, who nonetheless appeared energized by the opportunity to come in person. Wearing a blue suit with a tie of blue and yellow — the colors of the Ukrainian flag — he greeted the American ambassador.
“It’s good to be back in Kyiv,” he said.
He took a motorcade through streets that had been cleared of local traffic to Mariinsky Palace, where he was greeted by Mr. Zelensky, wearing his signature black sweatshirt with dark green pants and beige boots.
“Thank you for coming,” Mr. Zelensky said, shaking Mr. Biden’s hand.
Mr. Biden asked after Mr. Zelensky’s children. And when a reporter asked about his goal for the trip, Mr. Biden said it was to show that the United States was “here to stay,” adding, “We’re not leaving.”
There was speculation swirling on social media all morning about a possible visit as police closed streets and Ukrainian officials hinted that an important dignitary was arriving. Crowds gathered at barricades erected outside St. Michael’s in the hopes of catching a glimpse of what was happening.
Mr. Biden arrived in Kyiv at a pivotal moment of the war, both at home and abroad. Some of America’s staunchest allies have pressed Ukraine to begin negotiating a peace deal that might involve giving up territory to Russia. And in the United States, some Republican lawmakers have demanded an end to what they call “a blank check” for the war effort.
An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll last week found public support for aid to Ukraine softening, with 48 percent of Americans in favor of sending arms, down from 60 percent last May. But Mr. Biden sought to reassure Ukrainians. “For all the disagreement we have in our Congress on some issues,” he said, “there is significant agreement on support for Ukraine.”
On Tuesday morning, Mr. Biden is scheduled to meet with President Andrzej Duda of Poland, and later that afternoon he will deliver a speech from the Warsaw Castle. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia is expected to speak the same day, creating a split-screen image of the two leaders making their separate arguments about the war.
Russia’s state media quickly started using Mr. Biden’s visit as evidence of the Kremlin’s claim that the West is waging a proxy war against Russia. “We’re not at war with Ukraine, certainly not with the Ukrainian people,” the RIA Novosti news agency quoted an analyst as saying. “The Kyiv authorities embody an instrument of the collective West.”
Mr. Biden’s visit to Kyiv recalled the secret missions flown by Presidents George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald J. Trump to Iraq and Afghanistan during the height of the wars in those countries. But bringing a president into Ukraine without the sort of American troop presence that was on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan, much less control of the airspace, presented a security challenge of a vastly different magnitude. American warplanes were spotted flying over Poland near the border, but they did not enter Ukrainian airspace, officials said.
Mr. Zelensky made his own high-profile visit to Washington just before Christmas Day last year, his first trip outside Ukraine since the start of the Russian invasion, as he pleaded with Western leaders to provide more support. Like Mr. Biden’s trip to Ukraine, Mr. Zelensky’s visit was kept secret until the eve of his arrival for security reasons.
Two days after Mr. Zelensky’s speech, Congress approved nearly $50 billion in additional emergency aid for Ukraine, much of it military equipment aimed at allowing the country to fight back against Russia. That pushed the total amount of U.S. aid approved for Ukraine since the war started past $100 billion.
Initially, Mr. Biden and his top aides were reluctant to use the money to provide Ukraine with the most advanced weapons systems, capable of being used to attack deep into Russian territory. Mr. Biden remains opposed to supplying U.S. fighter jets, but his resistance to sending other equipment has lessened.
After his meetings with Mr. Zelensky and a stop to honor the country’s fallen soldiers, Mr. Biden returned to the train station at about 1 p.m.. For the next eight hours, the train meandered through western Ukraine on its way back to Poland, arriving at 8:45 p.m..
“Believe me, Joe Biden’s visit is strategic,” Andriy Yermak, a top adviser to Mr. Zelensky, said in a statement. “A lot of issues are being resolved and those that have been stuck will be sped up. Our common goal is the victory of Ukraine over Russia and the triumph of Ukrainian soldiers and Western weapons.”