Washington: If there was ever any doubt about Joe Biden’s unwavering support for Ukraine, he put it to rest the moment he arrived at Kyiv’s Mariinsky Palace after travelling 10 hours by train from Poland in the dead of the night.
Wearing a striped tie in the colours of the Ukraine flag, Biden was unequivocal when asked about the purpose of his surprise visit to the official residence of Volodymyr Zelensky: to convey the message that America would stand with Ukraine against Russia’s aggression for “as long as it takes”.
US President Joe Biden walks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at St Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral on a surprise visit.Credit:AP
“We’re not leaving,” the US president declared.
The unannounced trip was daring, dramatic and historic. Unlike previous visits from presidents to war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, the US does not have a military presence on the ground in Ukraine and does not control its critical infrastructure, which made this visit all the more logistically challenging.
But this was a risk that the 80-year-old Commander in Chief wanted to take – so much so that he ordered his team to “make it happen” despite the potential danger, according to White House officials.
The operation began under the cover of darkness early on Sunday morning, when Biden secretly departed Washington on a flight with a much smaller group than the usual presidential entourage.
Even the press pool accompanying him consisted of only a journalist and a photographer who found out what was happening just days before and were required to hand over their phones before boarding at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. The details of the trip were sent in an email with the subject line: “Arrival instructions for the golf tourney”.
The plane then stopped to refuel in Germany with its shades drawn before continuing on to Poland where the presidential motorcade, deliberately devoid of any sirens, took the group to the Przemyśl Główny train station, about four hours from Warsaw, for the lengthy journey into Kyiv.
Publicly, the White House was insisting that the president would depart on Monday and fly to Poland for a speech on Tuesday evening marking the anniversary of the invasion.
But as national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters, the trip was actually months in the works, although the final decision was only made at a meeting on Friday and known only by a select group of officials from the Pentagon, the Secret Service and the intelligence community.
Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelensky say goodbye at the Memorial Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine in Russian-Ukrainian War, in Kyiv.Credit:AP
It was a feat that carried some risk even though Moscow was given a heads-up about the visit.
Four days out from the anniversary of Russia’s bloody invasion, the symbolism couldn’t have been more potent.
While other world leaders have visited Kyiv in the past year, the last time a US president did so was 2008 when George W Bush met with then Ukraine president Viktor Yushchenko en route to a NATO summit in Romania.
Now, 15 years later, here was Biden, standing shoulder to shoulder with Zelensky at Mariinsky Palace and walking in the sunshine at St Michael’s Monastery as air raid sirens blared in the distance.
Vladimir Putin Credit:Sputnik/Kremlin
This was a visit clearly designed with multiple audiences in mind. The biggest, perhaps, was Vladimir Putin, who 12 months ago genuinely believed the Ukrainian capital would fall to Russia within a matter of days.
But as Biden noted alongside his Ukraine counterpart, Kyiv stands, democracy stands, and “Putin’s war of conquest is failing.”
The second audience was the Ukrainian people. While the casualty count among Putin’s forces is high, the war has nonetheless become a slow grind, with portions of Ukraine now under Russian occupation as Moscow continues to brutalise its civilian population.
To that end, America’s promise of an additional $500 million in military aid and a new phase of sanctions was a much-needed morale booster for the fatigued nation.
Ukrainian soldiers on their positions in the frontline near Soledar, Donetsk region.Credit:AP
And the third audience was the one back home. Rallying international support against Putin’s aggression has been a defining feature of Biden’s presidency, but polls have repeatedly shown that Americans are becoming increasingly concerned about their country’s ongoing military funding in a protracted battle.
This is also presenting a political challenge for the president, who now faces a Republican-controlled House of Representatives where a vocal right-wing minority is threatening to thwart future support.
Indeed, as Americans woke to the news, Democrats predictably praised the president while some Republicans predictably attacked the visit.
“Of course Joe Biden is in Ukraine and not Ohio,” tweeted Donald Trump jnr, referencing the scene of the toxic train derailment in East Palestine this month. “Because screw Americans.”
Republican Scott Perry, who sits on the House Foreign Affairs committee, also weighed in, noting that it was “breathtaking that President Biden can show up in Ukraine to ensure their border is secure, but can’t do the same for America.”
And far-right Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Green branded the visit as “incredibly insulting.”
“Joe Biden, the President of the United States chose Ukraine over America, while forcing the American people to pay for Ukraine’s government and war,” she said.
So far, support for Ukraine in America outweighs the opposition, and the cohesion of the US-led coalition remains intact. But in a war of attrition with no near-term prospect of peace talks, how long can this last?
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