Issued by CEMO Center - Paris
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Biden Makes Surprise Visit to Kyiv in Show of Support for Ukraine

Tuesday 21/February/2023 - 06:29 PM
The Reference

President Biden made an unannounced visit to Kyiv on Monday, a dramatic show of solidarity with Ukraine’s leader, President Volodymyr Zelensky, days before the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of the country.

The visit, Mr. Biden’s first since the war began and the first by any sitting U.S. president since George W. Bush in 2008, was a closely guarded secret. Air Force One departed Washington in darkness early Sunday morning after the president spent a night on the town Saturday with his wife, Jill, on a date in the nation’s capital.

The president’s appearance in the streets of Kyiv several hours later with Mr. Zelensky was a stark diplomatic act in a week of high stakes public positioning by an array of world leaders. It was also a show of vitality to an audience back home as the 80-year-old president prepares for an expected run for re-election next year.

Mr. Biden traveled on to Poland, where he will meet Tuesday with President Andrzej Duda, along with other European leaders. He is trying to solidify support for the Western alliance against Russia. At the same time, Russian President Vladimir Putin is set to deliver State of the Nation remarks to the national assembly in Moscow.

China’s top foreign-affairs official, Wang Yi, is visiting the Russian capital this week and will give details of a Chinese proposal to end the conflict. China is wrestling with how to approach a Russian ally that has become bogged down in Ukraine. Senior U.S. officials, including Vice President Kamala Harris, last week publicly warned Mr. Wang against China’s providing lethal arms to Russia.

In joint remarks with Mr. Zelensky at Mariinsky Palace, Mr. Biden emphasized the resilience of Ukraine, and he made the case for continued spending by the West to support Ukraine’s efforts to oust Russian forces.

“One year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands,” Mr. Biden said.

The war will reach its first anniversary on Feb. 24. Russia is stepping up an offensive in the east, and Ukrainian officials are bracing for other major Russian moves tied to the one-year mark of the Russian invasion. Mr. Biden is seeking to bolster public support back home for continued aid to Kyiv. Some Republicans have argued that he should be more focused on domestic problems.

Although past U.S. presidents made similarly secret journeys to Iraq and Afghanistan under veiled conditions, the security considerations associated with this trip were complicated by the absence of a U.S. military presence on the ground. Air sirens sounded as Messrs. Biden and Zelensky walked outside St. Michael’s Cathedral, a complex of sky-blue and golden buildings that for the past decade has served as a symbol of Ukrainian resistance.

While in Kyiv, Mr. Biden announced $460 million of additional military aid to Ukraine — Washington’s 32nd such package—including a range of munitions, Javelin antiarmor systems, infantry-support vehicles, communication equipment and medical supplies. Mr. Biden said additional sanctions would be announced targeting institutions that have sought to evade existing penalties on Russian banks.

Standing beside Mr. Zelensky with American and Ukrainian flags, Mr. Biden pledged unwavering support for Ukraine and its sovereignty and territorial independence. He wore a suit and a striped tie bearing Ukraine’s blue and yellow colors.

“I thought it was critical that there not be any doubt, none whatsoever, about U.S. support for Ukraine in the war,” Mr. Biden said.

The visit was an overt and public U.S. challenge to Mr. Putin. Mr. Biden pointed to the international response to Mr. Putin’s order to invade Ukraine last year. He said coordinated sanctions from the Atlantic to the Pacific “are squeezing Russia’s economic lifelines,” adding that Russian forces have lost half the territory they occupied in Ukraine during the early days of the invasion.

“Putin thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided,” Mr. Biden said. “He thought he could outlast us. I don’t think he’s thinking that right now.”

Mr. Zelensky, dressed in his trademark olive-green pants with a black sweatshirt and boots, thanked the U.S. president and Congress, where he delivered a speech in December. “I think this is a historic moment for our country,” he said.

U.S. officials informed Russia of the impending visit hours beforehand, an effort to avoid direct conflict during the visit, said national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Russian officials later described the president’s visit as a provocation. Spokespersons at the Russian Embassy in Washington didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Monday was the U.S. Presidents Day holiday.

While Kyiv has relied heavily on U.S. military aid over the past 12 months, Mr. Biden was one of the few Western leaders who hadn’t visited the country.

Mr. Biden arrived in Kyiv via Poland, to which he returned as part of an effort to reassure European partners of America’s commitment to Ukraine. He left the Ukrainian capital early on Monday afternoon local time.

“Joseph Biden, welcome to Kyiv! Your visit is an extremely important sign of support for all Ukrainians,” Mr. Zelensky wrote on Telegram, accompanied by a photo of the two men shaking hands.

Footage on social media Monday morning showed Mr. Biden walking alongside Mr. Zelensky through central Kyiv. Streets throughout the center of the city were closed before his arrival.

Uniformed Ukrainian military officers lined the street just outside St. Michael’s. Messrs. Biden and Zelensky participated in a wreath-laying ceremony at the Wall of Remembrance for fallen soldiers as a military salute played and the two presidents stood in silence for a few moments.

The image of Messrs. Biden and Zelensky in Kyiv underscored Ukraine’s surprising resilience against a Russian invasion. A year ago many international leaders believed the Ukrainian government would fall within days.

Mr. Biden’s visit to the embattled capital was designed in part to ensure Ukraine’s fight doesn’t fade from U.S. public consciousness and to rally European support. The president is scheduled to give a speech on Tuesday making the case for continued aid for Ukraine. He plans to meet with North Atlantic Treaty Organization leaders from Eastern European countries known as the Bucharest Nine on Wednesday.

Mr. Biden is facing new challenges at home, where public support for providing assistance to Kyiv has softened. A recent Associated Press-NORC poll showed 48% of American adults were in favor of providing weapons to Ukraine, down from 60% in May.

The new House Republican majority is under pressure from some members of its party to oppose additional funding, raising questions over whether future aid packages would pass a newly divided Congress. Lawmakers have authorized $113 billion in military and economic assistance for Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began.

“Breathtaking that President Biden can show up in Ukraine to ensure their border is secure, but can’t do the same for America,” said Rep. Scott Perry (R., Pa.), chairman of the House Freedom Caucus. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R., Fla.) tweeted: “I’m not surprised that Biden is ditching America for Ukraine.”

Republicans, however, don’t speak with a unified voice on the war. Some party members are strongly in favor of Mr. Biden’s efforts to aid Ukraine. Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, called the visit “the right signal to send at the right time.”

Mr. Biden said there was broad and bipartisan support for Ukraine in Washington. “For all the disagreement we have in our Congress on some issues, there is significant agreement on support for Ukraine,” he said. “It’s not just about freedom in Ukraine…It’s about freedom of democracy at large.”

U.S. and European leaders put on a united front at the Munich Security Conference last week, where they condemned what they called Russian aggression and vowed to stand by Kyiv.

Ms. Harris on Saturday said the U.S. has formally determined that Russia committed crimes against humanity and must be held accountable.

“From the starting days of this unprovoked war, we have witnessed Russian forces engage in horrendous atrocities and war crimes,” the U.S. vice president said at the global security and foreign-policy forum.

Mr. Zelensky has campaigned for new military equipment, including jet fighters, while also seeking more ammunition and armored vehicles. Ukrainian calls for more assistance grew louder after Russia launched a barrage of missiles on Feb. 16 that struck critical infrastructure in Ukraine, prompting fresh warnings from Kyiv that a larger attack on targets across the country was expected at the one-year mark of the war this week.

Ukrainian officials are hoping Mr. Biden’s visit will help them secure more materiel, notably long-range missiles known as ATACMS, which would allow Kyiv to disrupt Russian supply lines, in addition to jet fighters.

Mr. Biden has said the U.S. won’t be sending the F-16 jet fighters that Ukraine is requesting. But he has reversed course on military aid in the past, initially saying the U.S. wouldn’t send M1 Abrams battle tanks before agreeing last month to send them.