WASHINGTON — President Biden made a secret trip to the besieged capital of Ukraine on Monday, arriving after an hourslong train ride from the border of Poland in a demonstration of his administration’s resolve in the face of Russia’s yearlong invasion of the country.
The visit to Kyiv was conducted covertly because of security concerns, with Mr. Biden departing Washington without notice after he and his wife had a rare dinner out at a restaurant on Saturday night.
Mr. Biden had already been publicly scheduled to arrive in Warsaw on Tuesday morning for a two-day visit, and officials had repeatedly denied that there were any other plans they could announce about a trip to Ukraine while he was there. Indeed, 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 in fact he was already half a world away.
But 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 first anniversary of the invasion as a way of reassuring allies that his administration remains committed.
Mr. Biden arrived in Ukraine’s capital 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, the newly installed House speaker, Kevin McCarthy, and some of his fellow Republican lawmakers have demanded an end to what they call “a blank check” for the war effort.
Mr. Biden’s surprise visit came just a day before a scheduled speech by President Vladimir V. Putin on Tuesday in which the Russian leader is expected to speak about his country’s war effort amid indications that a spring offensive in Ukraine is already underway.
Mr. Biden had been scheduled to meet with President Andrzej Duda of Poland on Tuesday morning and deliver a speech from the Warsaw Castle later that afternoon — creating a split-screen image of Mr. Biden and Mr. Putin each speaking about Ukraine on the same day. It was unclear whether his schedule would change because of the visit to Kyiv.
The State of the War
- Western Support: Nearly one year into the war, American and European leaders pledged to remain steadfast in their support for Ukraine amid worries about how long their resolve will last.
- Harris’s Comments: Vice President Kamala Harris declared that the United States had formally concluded that Russia had committed “crimes against humanity” in its invasion of Ukraine.
- A Russian Mole in Germany?: A director at Germany’s spy service was arrested on suspicion of passing intelligence to Russia. German officials and allies worry just how deep the problem goes.
- Rebuilding Ukraine: As Ukraine’s leaders lay postwar plans, businesses around the world are positioning themselves for what could be a multibillion-dollar effort.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has turned into a long, brutal slog, with Ukrainian forces — backed by the United States and other Western allies — putting up a fierce fight, especially in the east.
But Mr. Putin’s forces, bolstered by an army of private soldiers conscripted into service, have begun a fresh assault on those positions even as Russia continues its practice of bombardment of civilian infrastructure in cities across Ukraine.
Mr. Biden’s visit to Kyiv recalled the secret missions flown by Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama to Iraq and Afghanistan during the height of the wars in those countries.
In 2003, Mr. Bush made a Thanksgiving visit to troops in Iraq that was so covert that even members of his Secret Service detail thought he was still at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. In 2010, Mr. Obama made a similar trip to Kabul, Afghanistan, leaving from Camp David to avoid detection.
Mr. Biden’s trip to Ukraine — an active war zone but without the sort of American troops that were on the ground in Iraq and Afghanistan to help protect a visiting president — was particularly tricky. In the last year, American officials who have traveled to Kyiv have opted not to fly directly there because of the dangers from missiles.
Instead, top American officials have typically ridden an overnight train from Poland, which can take more than seven hours but is considered more secure, spent several hours on the ground in Kyiv and then departed by train again without staying overnight. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken made the trip in September and Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, visited in November.
Mr. Biden’s visit comes after President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine 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.
Mr. Zelensky made that appeal during meetings with Mr. Biden at the White House and in an emotional speech to Congress. Like Mr. Biden’s trip to Ukraine, Mr. Zelensky’s visit was kept secret until the eve of his arrival for security reasons.
“Ukraine is alive and kicking,” Mr. Zelensky told the lawmakers during his speech. “And it gives me good reason to share with you our first joint victory: We defeated Russia in the battle for minds of the world.”
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 had been reluctant to use the money to provide Ukraine with the most advanced weapons systems, capable of being used to attack deep into Russian territory. The president said he was wary of giving Mr. Putin a justification to escalate the conflict more broadly.
Mr. Biden remains opposed to supplying U.S. fighter jets, but his resistance to other equipment has softened. The president announced last month that he would provide M1 Abrams tanks to Ukraine this year and his administration has committed to delivering a Patriot air defense battery to the country and training Ukrainian troops to use it.
But Ukraine has not yet defeated Russia on the battlefield, and the grinding conflict has been costly for both sides, with thousands dead and millions of Ukrainians fleeing to neighboring countries like Poland as refugees.
American officials had described Mr. Biden’s mission to Poland as a continuation of his effort to cement the allied coalition that is supporting Ukraine’s population.
“President Biden will make it clear that the United States will continue to stand with Ukraine, as you’ve heard him say many times, for as long as it takes,” John F. Kirby, a top spokesman for the National Security Council, said on Friday before Mr. Biden’s departure.
But there has been some fraying of that coalition in the long year of war, and Mr. Biden is getting pressure from all sides, including those who oppose sending so much taxpayer money to a far-off war and others who insist the United States needs to do even more in the face of Russian aggression.
Administration officials dismiss the idea of pulling back support for Ukraine, saying there are only a handful of Republican lawmakers who have pushed that idea.
“Yes, there are a small number of members on Capitol Hill, in the House Republicans specifically, that have expressed publicly their concerns about support for Ukraine,” Mr. Kirby said. But he added: “If you talk to the House leadership, you won’t hear that. And you certainly aren’t going to hear it on the Democratic side. And you don’t hear it in the Senate.”
But some former American diplomats said Mr. Biden had opened the door to criticism because he had not made the most expansive case possible for supporting Ukraine.
John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine and a senior director at the Atlantic Council, said the president needed to be more direct about describing why support for Ukraine was vital to American interests.
“Instead of saying simply, we will stay with Ukraine as long as it takes, we would say, we have a vital interest in delivering a strategic defeat to Putin or Ukrainian victory or both,” Mr. Herbst said.
Officials declined to say whether Mr. Biden would announce new weapons shipments to Ukraine during his previously announced trip to Poland, but Mr. Kirby hinted that the president would offer specifics about support.
“I think you’ll hear from the president, in his speech, continued, tangible support for Ukraine going forward,” Mr. Kirby said.