President Joe Biden visited Kyiv on Monday for the first time since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine almost a year ago, demonstrating in dramatic personal fashion his commitment to the country and its struggle as the war enters an uncertain new phase.
While in Kyiv, Biden met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky as well as first lady Olena Zelenska at the Ukrainian presidential palace.
Biden’s visit comes at a critical moment in the 12-month conflict, with Russia preparing for an expected spring offensive and Ukraine hoping to soon retake territory. The United States and other western nations have been rushing arms, tanks and ammunition to Ukraine in the hopes of changing the trajectory of the war.
By visiting in person, Biden is offering a singular image of American support for Zelensky, who has spent the past year attempting to rally the world behind his home nation and appealing for greater levels of assistance.
Zelensky himself traveled to Washington in December to meet Biden in the Oval Office and speak to a joint session of Congress – his first trip outside Ukraine since the war began.
The Ukrainian leader invited Biden to visit Kyiv months ago, saying he believed it was important for the US leader to see the situation up close.
“I think he’s the leader of the United States, and that’s why he should come here to see,” Zelensky said in April during an interview with CNN’s Jake Tapper. As recently as last week, Zelensky said his invitation for Biden to visit Ukraine remained open, even as he acknowledged there were other means for them to speak.
“President Biden and I meet occasionally. You know that we have invited the President. I think he will be happy to visit Ukraine if he has the opportunity. That would be an important signal to support our nation,” Zelensky said on February 15.
The trip – which was not announced until Monday – comes ahead of Biden’s planned two-day visit to Poland. The President is scheduled to be in Warsaw on Tuesday where he will meet with Polish President Andrzej Duda, the White House said Sunday.
Biden has been itching to visit Ukraine for months, particularly after several of his counterparts in Europe all endured lengthy train journeys to meet with Zelensky in Kyiv. French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak, as well as former British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have all made visits to the country to demonstrate their support.
Several of Biden’s top lieutenants, including Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, have also visited the Ukrainian capital to pledge new assistance. Senior administration officials, including CIA Director Bill Burns and top White House officials, visited Kyiv last month.
Even Biden’s wife, Dr. Jill Biden, paid a surprise visit on Mother’s Day last year to a small city in the far southwestern corner of Ukraine. She met with Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska at a former school that was converted into temporary housing for displaced Ukrainians, including 48 children.
Yet security precautions had prevented Biden from making a similar trip. When he visited Poland in April last year, the White House did not even explore the potential for a trip across the border, even though Biden said he had voiced interest.
“They will not let me – understandably, I guess – cross the border and take a look at what’s going on in Ukraine,” he said at the time.
Now, with the war nearing its one-year mark on February 24, Biden is hoping to demonstrate to the world his commitment to Ukraine, even as it remains unclear how much longer US and western resolve can last.
US officials have privately voiced hope the massive influx of weaponry to Ukraine – which includes new vehicles, longer-range missiles and Patriot air defense systems – can help Ukraine prevail on the battlefield and put Zelensky in a stronger position to negotiate an end to the war.
But it remains unclear what parameters Zelensky might be willing to accept in any peace negotiations, and the US has steadfastly refused to define what a settlement may look like beyond stating it will be up to Zelensky to decide.
Biden’s visit to Ukraine also comes as US concerns grow over China’s support for Russia’s military.
American officials told CNN on Saturday the US has recently begun seeing “disturbing” trends and there are signs that Beijing wants to “creep up to the line” of providing lethal military aid to Moscow without getting caught.
The officials would not describe in detail what intelligence the US has seen suggesting a recent shift in China’s posture, but said US officials have been concerned enough that they have shared the intelligence with allies and partners at the Munich Security Conference over the last several days.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken raised the issue when he met with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, on Saturday on the sidelines of the conference, officials said.
Wang, who was named Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s top foreign policy adviser last month, is expected to arrive in Moscow this week, in the first visit to the country from a Chinese official in that role since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
According to China’s Foreign Ministry, Wang’s visit will provide an opportunity for China and Russia to continue to develop their strategic partnership and “exchange views” on “international and regional hotspot issues of shared interest” – a catch-all phrase often used to allude to topics including the war in Ukraine.