KYIV — Just days before the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the streets of the capital were suddenly locked down on Monday morning. Then videos of a mysterious procession of vehicles with blacked-out windows began being posted online.
Who, many ordinary Ukrainians — trying to go about their daily business as best as they can despite the war — was the foreign guest causing so much inconvenience?
There had been rumors that Joe Biden was going to make a surprise visit to Kyiv before his scheduled trip to Poland. But the people of Ukraine didn’t know for sure until Biden was pictured walking out of Mykhailivsky monastery in central Kyiv together with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
The image of the U.S. president calmly walking in Kyiv, while air raid sirens blared in the background, gave hope to Ukrainians, who saw a powerful ally standing beside them.
“Thank you, Mister President, for visiting Kyiv today. Strong gesture in support of our fight. Again, we are invincible when united! Russia is already losing. Invaders will die. Be brave like Ukrainians and like Biden,” prominent Ukrainian military volunteer Serhiy Prytula said in a statement.
Russians were obviously less impressed. Dmitry Medvedev, a former president, reacted with a rant about Biden “being allowed to safely travel to Kyiv by Russians” and Russian military bloggers started asking when Vladimir Putin is going to the occupied Donetsk region to show the same kind of support for his troops.
Vladyslav Farapontov, an Internews Ukraine media analyst, told POLITICO that “Russians are going crazy on social media because they realize their weakness during this visit. There is nothing they can do about it. What is more, as the first anniversary of the war approaches, it makes them think of their foolishness as Russia’s officials have convinced them that Kyiv could be captured in three days.”
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told the AP that the Russians were only formally informed several hours before the visit to avoid “any miscalculation that could bring the two nuclear-armed nations into direct conflict.”
“It is difficult to imagine a bigger diplomatic slap [in the face] to Putin than the arrival of President Biden in Kyiv,” former CEO of Ukrainian gas company Naftogaz Andriy Kobolev wrote on Facebook.
Biden came bearing more than support: In a joint address with Zelenskyy, he announced half a billion dollars of additional assistance to Ukraine, which will include military equipment such as artillery munitions, javelins and howitzers.
“Together with more than 50 partner countries, we have approved more than 700 tanks and thousands of armored vehicles,” the U.S. president said. Biden also said he thought it was critical not to leave any doubt about U.S. support for Ukraine in the war: “The Ukrainian people have stepped up in a way that few people ever have in the past.”
Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar described Biden’s visit as a historic day for Ukraine. “It is a sunny and warm day in Kyiv. We survived this winter, which is almost over. Now it is time to win the war,” she wrote in a statement, posting a photo of the Ukrainian first couple happily greeting Biden in Kyiv.
Ukrainian soldiers fighting on the front lines also saw Biden’s visit as a morale boost ahead of the expected counteroffensive later this week.
“He came to the capital, half a thousand kilometers from the front line. And the guys at the very front, despite the wild fatigue and cold, have a completely different mood. More energy and strength. There is even greater confidence that we are doing everything right,” Ukrainian serviceman and environmental activist Yehor Firsov wrote in a Facebook post.
Farapontov, the Internews Ukraine media analyst, said: “In my view, the visit of President Biden is crucial for Ukrainians because it hasn’t been announced in advance, and it brings some hope during this difficult time.”
He added: “The visit is happening at the moment of the Russian counteroffensive in the east. In addition, last week Russia continued to launch missiles all over Ukraine. Therefore, Ukrainians have enormous expectations for the U.S. regarding extending its support toward Ukraine. It applies to fighter jets, more tanks, long-range missiles, and other means to defeat Russia. But what I’ve seen today is a confirmation that Biden has a special sentiment toward Ukraine.”
The shock visit was a logistical nightmare to arrange. Biden left Washington at 4:15 a.m. local time and U.S. officials had expressed concerns that the president couldn’t fly into Ukraine or take a 10-hour train ride without immense risk to the host nation and Biden himself. Ensuring the president’s safety was a near-impossible endeavor, those officials said, though they acknowledged Biden had long wanted to go to Kyiv.
A Ukrainian government official, speaking on the condition on anonymity due to the confidential information involved, said the Ukrainians “have been requesting this visit for a long time.”
The same official added that the visit had been prepared “in a very short amount of time” — around a week — “with the utmost level of secrecy through (President’s Office Head Andriy) Yermak’s and (Foreign Minister Dmytro) Kuleba’s lines of communication.”
Biden’s bold move brought praise from beyond Ukrainian borders. Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Reinsalu said the visit to Kyiv was “immense.”
“In a way, it will frame all these events around the sad anniversary of the year of the full-scale war. And it will give, I think, a lot of mental power to the Ukrainian people. It will give a strong signal to Russia. But very important also, I think, all over the planet, and also countries of global south will get that signal.”
Poland’s Ambassador to the EU Andrzej Sadoś said Monday’s visit “strengthens the allies’ determination to support Ukraine and introduce further sanctions against Russia. It is a timely, symbolic and historic visit which shows that the free world stands with Ukraine.”
Lili Bayer contributed reporting.