Inside Biden’s Surreal and Secretive Journey to Ukraine
WASHINGTON — As the train rumbles through the Ukrainian countryside one long night, there isn’t much left outside the window, just the occasional streetlight or the silhouettes of buildings in the distance. But the people watching the train go by couldn’t see who was inside, and they couldn’t guess if they stopped to wonder.
Aboard the anonymous train are President Biden and a core team of advisers accompanied by armed and shrewd Secret Service agents, embarking on a secret mission to visit Kyiv. For the world, Mr. Biden was back in Washington, coming home for the evening after a date night at an Italian restaurant.
In fact, he is on a journey unlike any that a modern American president has taken.
In a bold move to demonstrate America’s determination to help Ukraine defeat the invading Russian forces a year ago this weekMr. Biden secretly traveled to Kyiv to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky and promise to deliver even more weapons to the country’s defenders. The visit created an indelible image of the two presidents striding toward the martyrs’ memorial in broad daylight even when a Air raid sirens soundedA show of defiance by Moscow quickly spread around the world.
“I think it’s important not to have any doubts, not at all, about US support for Ukraine in the war,” Biden said during a five-hour stay in Kiev before leaving. Go. In fact, he is speaking not only to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia but also to fellow Americans back home who are questioning his decision to invest too deeply in the war in Ukraine. “It’s not just about freedom in Ukraine,” he said. “It’s about democratic freedoms in general.”
Never in Mr. Biden’s life has a president ventured into a war zone that was not under the control of US forces, much less traveled on a relatively slow locomotive that would take nine and a half hours to get there. destination. During that time, he is likely to face situations beyond the control of the hyper-vigilant security team that normally seeks to protect the commander-in-chief from every conceivable physical danger and Minimize time spent outside of fortified shelters.
In fact, for most of the past year, most people around the president rejected any urge to go, considering it too risky. But nearly a year after the Russian invasion, with the Ukrainian army far more advanced than people expected at the start and after. American and European leaders After making the trip, Mr. Biden and his team made a bet that he could get in and out safely.
“Of course there’s still risk, and there’s still risk, in an effort like this,” Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, told reporters by phone from the train as it left Kyiv to return to Poland. “And President Biden felt that it was important to make this trip because of the pivotal moment that we find ourselves approaching the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.”
It’s been a long and surreal journey. This is not how Mr Biden used to see Ukraine. He has visited six times as vice president — three times in a six-month period — arriving on an American jet, peering out of the window during the day to see Kyiv from above. Now he is sneaking into the dark, arriving just after sunrise.
Aides said the trip had been going on for months, as only a handful of trusted officials at the White House, Pentagon, Secret Service and intelligence agencies weighed up threat assessments. threaten. An aide said during the meetings, Mr. Biden focused on the risk his visit could pose to others, not himself.
Ultimately, the decision was made on Friday, when the president gathered with several top advisers in the Oval Office and consulted with others by phone. He chose to go.
Mr. Biden had planned to go to Poland for the celebration. Often, when presidents covertly make stops in uncertain locations, visits are added to the end of an existing trip. In this case, the White House decided to put it up front in the hopes of keeping it a secret.
The president played his part in the ruse. On Saturday night, he and Jill Biden went to Mass at Georgetown University, then stopped by the National Museum of American History and finally went to dinner at Red Hen, where they enjoyed rigatoni. , considered by many to be the best in the nation’s capital. . When the couple returned to the White House, most people would have assumed they would be staying the night.
But hours after midnight, Mr. Biden was removed from the mansion and taken to Joint Base Andrews in suburban Maryland, where a small group of aides, security personnel, medical crews, and House photographers White and two journalists are waiting for him. .
Two journalists, Sabrina Siddiqui from The Wall Street Journal and Evan Vucci from The Associated Press, were summoned to the White House on Friday and sworn to secrecy. They were asked to wait for more information in an email with the subject line: “Guide to where to attend the golf tournament.”
The two-man team of reporters is a stark contrast to the president’s other security-sensitive trips, when the usual additional group of 13 reporters and photographers is carried out. But it won’t be the only unusual feature of the trip.
Since Abraham Lincoln rode to the front lines outside Washington to watch the battles of Northern Virginia during the Civil War, no president had ever come close to the battlefield. Franklin D. Roosevelt visits North Africa; Lyndon B. Johnson to Vietnam; George W. Bush and Barack Obama went to Iraq and Afghanistan; and Donald J. Trump went to Afghanistan.
But in all of those cases, they went to countries or regions that were under the control of American forces. In this case, the US military would not be present in Ukraine, nor would it control the airspace. US military planes were spotted hovering over eastern Poland near the border during the trip, but officials said they never entered Ukrainian airspace out of concern that it would be seen as a formality. direct US intervention that Mr. Biden has avoided.
Arriving in Andrews early Sunday morning, the two journalists handed over their phones and were not returned for 24 hours. They don’t get on board the regular blue and white Boeing 747 designated as Air Force One Once the president is on the plane, they board an Air Force C-32, which is normally used for flights. domestic travel to airports with shorter runways. The plane was parked in the dark next to a hangar with sunshades.
Mr. Biden arrived around 4 a.m., and the plane took off at 4:15 a.m. for a transatlantic flight. Mr. Biden was joined by several aides – Mr. Sullivan; Jen O’Malley Dillon, deputy chief of staff; and Annie Tomasini, executive director of the Oval Office. The plane landed at Ramstein Air Base in Germany at 5:13 p.m. local time, where, with its drapes down, it refueled before taking off again at 6:29 p.m. It then made its way to Rzeszów-Jasionka Airport in Poland, landing at 7:57 p.m.
Mr. Biden was put in a convoy of about 20 cars and driven without a horn for about an hour along a mostly deserted highway to the small city of Przemyśl and taken to the train station where thousands refugees have arrived from Ukraine in the past year . By 9:15 p.m., visitors found few people there and the stalls closed.
The convoy pulled straight onto a predominantly purple train, with some carriages painted blue with a yellow stripe in the middle to resemble the Ukrainian flag. Rarely does a president travel in any vehicle other than that of the Secret Service or the US military, but flying into Ukraine is not considered safe.
The train left the station without Mass at 9:37 p.m. and crossed the border into Ukraine at around 10 p.m. The White House wanted so much secrecy that it lied to reporters in Washington. About four hours after Mr. Biden crossed into Ukraine, his office in Washington put out a public schedule falsely claiming that the president remained in the nation’s capital and had no plans to leave Europe until evening. Monday.
Dressed in casual clothes, Biden had trouble sleeping during the long train ride, according to a senior official who spoke on condition of anonymity when describing the trip. The president spent the entire trip recalling his previous trips to Kyiv, including his speech to the Ukrainian Parliament and his remarks on his last trip in 2017. He read a transcript. Remember to summarize the history of Kyiv from its founding and reflect on its history with the city.
Speaking to aides, Biden recounted a phone call with Zelensky on February 24 last year when the Russian invasion began, and he was surprised at how the Ukrainian leader told him at the time that He wasn’t sure when they would talk again. Now, Mr. Biden mused to his aides, they are here to meet face-to-face in Kiev a year later.
After an all-night trip, the train entered Kyiv-Pasazhyrsky station at 8 a.m. local time. Platform has been removed. On a sunny day with clear skies and chilly air, Mr Biden got off the train, now wearing a blue suit with a Ukrainian tie. He was greeted by Bridget A. Brink, the US ambassador.
“It’s good to be back in Kiev,” he said.
During his five hours in the city, he met Mr. Zelensky at Mariinsky Palace, laid a wreath with him at the Memorial Wall at St. Michael’s Golden Dome Monastery and stopped by the US Embassy to meet with the its staff.
He then returned to the old station, departing at 1:10 pm On the long winding train back to Poland, the senior official said the president had issued a series of directives on the military fields , economic and diplomatic to help Ukraine. He was intrigued by the meetings he just had. Again, he couldn’t sleep much.
He arrives at Przemyśl Główny station at 8:45 p.m. local time, and he’s heading back to the airport for a flight to Warsaw, where he’ll give a speech on Tuesday. His mind, the aides said, remained on his final stop.
“Kyiv,” he said before leaving, “I must say has captured a piece of my heart.”
Peter Baker reports from Washington, and Michael D. Cut from Warsaw.