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Dispatch from Ukraine

Biden defies safety warnings and air raid sirens for moment of history in Kyiv

Kim Sengupta speaks to soldiers on the front line and residents of Kyiv about just how significant the visit of the US president is

Tuesday 21 February 2023 07:48 GMT
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Volodymyr Zelensky with US president Joe Biden at St Michael’s monastery in Kyiv
Volodymyr Zelensky with US president Joe Biden at St Michael’s monastery in Kyiv (via Reuters)

The most powerful man in the world came to Ukraine with the message that American and Western support will continue until this war in the heart of Europe comes to an end.

The US Secret Service, along with the Department of State, had not wanted Joe Biden’s visit to take place in Kyiv, according to diplomats, for safety reasons. They wanted Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky to meet him across the border from Poland, where the US president is currently on an official visit. President Biden, however, was determined that he would go to the capital, and the trip thus had to be organised in hurried secrecy, including a train journey across the Polish border.

Areas in central Kyiv were shut off in the morning, and a news blackout was imposed among government departments.

There were air raid sirens as Mr Biden arrived with his cavalcade in the capital, adding a sense of drama and giving Mr Biden a glimpse of what citizens across the country have been dealing with for almost 12 months, as we reach the anniversary of Vladimir Putin’s invasion. He began his visit in solemnity, accompanying President Zelensky on a walk to the memorial, near St Michael’s monastery, that honours Ukrainian soldiers who have fallen in the war.

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The US president’s visit came on the anniversary of the day during the Maidan protests in 2014 – the demonstrations that led to the overthrow of pro-Moscow president Viktor Yanukovych – when a hundred people, the “Heavenly Hundred” as they are known, were killed. President Putin’s response to the loss of his ally was to annex Crimea and send troops into the east of Ukraine, instigating the conflict that led to the creation of the separatist republics of Donetsk and Luhansk, and sowing the seeds of the current war.

“It’s good to be back in Kyiv,” Mr Biden declared, adding that this was his eighth visit to Ukraine. Many of his trips to the country were as Barack Obama’s vice-president, when he built up a close working relationship with the previous Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko. Donald Trump later sought to smear Mr Biden’s reputation by way of his son Hunter Biden’s business interests in the country.

This was, however, Mr Biden’s first visit as president, and the second thing he said – that the US is “here to stay, we are not leaving” – was the note of reassurance he wanted to convey. He stressed that he was in Ukraine to underline America’s “unwavering and unflagging commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity”. He added: “When Putin launched his invasion nearly one year ago, he thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided. He thought he could outlast us. But he was dead wrong.”

President Biden’s surprise visit is the first time in modern history that a US leader has visited a war zone where there is not an active American military presence. The White House said it had notified the Kremlin of the visit ahead of time.

A number of international leaders have visited Kyiv, including Boris Johnson when he was prime minister, his successor Rishi Sunak, French president Emmanuel Macron, German chancellor Olaf Scholz, and Canadian and Italian prime ministers Justin Trudeau and Mario Draghi, as well as a number of Eastern European and Baltic leaders.

Joe Biden meets Volodymyr Zelensky in surprise visit to Ukraine

Nevertheless, Mr Biden’s visit is seen by many as having the same symbolic significance as Harry S Truman’s journey to Europe in July 1945 at the end of the Second World War – arriving in Belgium on his way to Germany. But while President Truman met Joseph Stalin, as well as British prime ministers Winston Churchill and Clement Attlee, at the Potsdam Conference in an effort to establish a peaceful future for the shattered continent, there is no prospect at present for a settlement with President Putin.

This significance was not lost on the residents of Kyiv. Anastasia Rudenka, a 32-year-old teacher, said: “We heard rumours of his coming, but didn’t believe it. Supposing the Russians try something when he’s here? But it is so good that he came, it will be really good for morale. I am also glad he came on this Day of the Heavenly Heroes. A lot of people suffered to establish democracy; we must protect it.”

Troops on the front line in Kharkiv and Luhansk – where Russia’s new offensives are expected to take place – told The Independent of their surprise and delight at the presidential visit, a boost as they seek to defend against intense Russian artillery fire.

The press conference held by the two leaders (AFP via Getty)

Vitalii Babko, a machine-gunner with the 92nd Brigade fighting in Luhansk, said: “We didn’t get the news immediately because we are right in the front. All I can say is that Joe Biden is a very brave man in doing this, not being afraid to come to Ukraine. This is most important support for the Ukrainian people.

“We hope he brought good news about weapons. We need more advanced weapons, and we need the weapons to come fast. Things will be very difficult without this,” he added.

Having met Mr Biden met at the Mariinsky Palace, with handshakes for the cameras against a backdrop of American and Ukrainian flags, President Zelensky said discussions with his counterpart had involved the delivery of longer-range missiles to Ukraine. President Biden announced a $500m (£416m) military package for Ukraine this week, including ammunition for American HIMARS missile launchers.

Major Oleksandr Osadchyi, deputy commander of the 226th “Cossacks” Battalion, which is stationed on the Kharkiv front line, said that the visit “shows [the] trust and confidence that our major ally has in Ukraine our country”.

President Biden, left, walks with President Zelensky during the visit on Monday (Reuters)

“It sends a very strong signal to Putin before the anniversary of war. For Ukrainian government and people, this is a powerful sign of full US support, and an indication that necessary weapons for the counteroffensive will come. We have months of fighting ahead,” he added.

At a press conference during the visit, President Biden recalled his conversation with President Zelensky on the night before the invasion. “It was one year ago this week that we spoke on the telephone, Mr President,” he said. “Russian planes were in the air, and tanks were rolling across your border. The world was about to change, I remember it vividly. I asked you: ‘What is there we can do for you; how can I be of help?’ You said: ‘Gather the leaders of the world, ask them to support Ukraine.’

“I thought it was critical that there not be any doubt, none whatsoever, about US support for Ukraine in the war. The Ukrainian people have stepped up in a way that few people ever have in the past.”

The US president insisted that there continues to be 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.” Mr Biden also paid tribute to Mr Zelensky’s “courage and leadership” in a message he wrote in the guest book at Mariinsky Palace.

The two presidents on their walk around the streets of Kyiv (AFP via Getty)

President Zelensky called Mr Biden’s visit “an extremely important sign of support for all Ukrainians”. He welcomed new sanctions due to be imposed on Russia this week, and said the visit was a “clear signal that Russia has no chance” of winning the war and that the US and Ukraine are determined to “together defend our cities and citizens”.

In Kharkiv, a city that has endured repeated and sustained Russian attacks, Ruslan Usmanov, an IT consultant, is among many who believe that Russia is preparing for further war, not peace. “There is a worry that America and Europe may be getting tired of this war and the cost of it,” he said. This [visit] is very timely, and [it’s] very, very good that President Biden came to our country.”

There is apprehension that the Kremlin is trying to replace pro-Western governments in Europe, such as in Moldova, where there is apprehension that an attempt at a coup is being planned. Demonstrations have taken place in the capital, Chisinau, and the country’s leader, Maia Sandu, has said that Moscow intends to “use people from outside the country for violent actions”.

Mr Putin is due to make his annual speech to Russian citizens on Tuesday in Moscow. This will be followed by a major rally on Wednesday, which he may attend. Russian troops are making slow gains in the east of Ukraine, but are said to be suffering huge losses in troops and equipment.

China’s foreign minister, Wang Yi, has arrived in Moscow amid claims by the US secretary of state Antony Blinken that Beijing is considering selling Russia arms and ammunition. Mr Blinken warned that such a step would have “serious consequences” for Beijing. Russia’s Kommersant newspaper, however, claimed that the trip was to propose a possible peace plan to end the war.

Mr Zelensky has also warned China against supporting Russia in its war on Ukraine and said doing so would bring on a world war.

“For us, it is important that China does not support the Russian Federation in this war,” Mr Zelensky told the German newspaper Die Welt. “In fact, I would like it to be on our side. At the moment, however, I don’t think it’s possible.”

“But I do see an opportunity for China to make a pragmatic assessment of what is happening here,” he added. “Because if China allies itself with Russia, there will be a world war, and I do think that China is aware of that.”

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