Look: Sneaking a US president from DC to Kyiv without anyone noticing

Biden’s visit to Ukraine was the first time in modern history that a US leader visited a warzone outside the aegis of the US military

By AP

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Joe Biden walks with Volodymyr Zelensky at St. Michael's Golden-Domed Cathedral in Kyiv. — AP
Joe Biden walks with Volodymyr Zelensky at St. Michael's Golden-Domed Cathedral in Kyiv. — AP

Published: Mon 20 Feb 2023, 10:40 PM

US President Joe Biden’s motorcade slipped out of the White House around 3.30am on Sunday. No big, flashy Air Force One for this trip — the president vanished into the darkness on an Air Force C-32, a modified Boeing 757 normally used for domestic trips to smaller airports.

The next time he turned up — 20 hours later — it was in downtown Kyiv, Ukraine.

Biden’s surprise visit to Ukraine on Monday was the first time in modern history that a US leader visited a warzone outside the aegis of the US military — a feat the White House said carried some risk even though Moscow was given a heads-up.

Joe Biden and  Volodymyr Zelensky talk during an unannounced visit in Kyiv. — AP
Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelensky talk during an unannounced visit in Kyiv. — AP

Over the next five hours, the president made multiple stops around town — ferried about in a black SUV rather than the presidential limousine — without any announcement to the Ukrainian public that he was there. But all that activity attracted enough attention that word of his presence leaked out well before he could get back to Poland, which was the original plan. Aides at the White House were surprised the secret held as long as it did.

But Russia knew what the Ukrainian public did not. US officials had given Moscow notice of Biden's trip.

The president had been itching since last year to join the parade of other Western officials who have visited Kyiv to pledge support standing shoulder to shoulder with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the capital.

Joe Biden participates in a wreath laying ceremony at the memorial wall outside of St. Michael's Golden-Domed Cathedral in Kyiv. — AP
Joe Biden participates in a wreath laying ceremony at the memorial wall outside of St. Michael's Golden-Domed Cathedral in Kyiv. — AP

Biden's planned trip to Warsaw, Poland, and the Presidents' Day holiday provided an obvious opening to tack on a stop in Kyiv. A small group of senior officials at the White House and across US national security agencies set about working in secret for months to make it happen, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on Monday. Biden only gave the final sign-off on Friday.

Sullivan said the trip “required a security, operational, and logistical effort from professionals across the US government to take what was an inherently risky undertaking and make it a manageable risk.”

Once Biden was secreted aboard the Air Force jet, the call sign “SAM060,” for Special Air Mission, was used for the plane instead of the usual “Air Force One.” It took off from Joint Base Andrews at 4.15am Eastern time.

After a refueling stop in Germany, Biden’s aircraft switched off its transponder for the roughly hour-long flight to Rzeszow, Poland, the airport that has served as the gateway for billions of dollars in Western arms and VIP visitors into Ukraine.

Joe Biden meets with Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife Olena Zelenska at Mariinsky Palace during an unannounced visit in Kyiv. — AP
Joe Biden meets with Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife Olena Zelenska at Mariinsky Palace during an unannounced visit in Kyiv. — AP

He arrived in Kyiv at 8am on Monday and was greeted by Ambassador Bridget Brink and entered his motorcade for the drive to Mariinsky Palace. Even while he was on the ground in Ukraine, flights transporting military equipment and other goods were continuing unabated to Rzeszow from Western cities.

Meanwhile, in Kyiv, many main streets and central blocks were cordoned off without explanation. People started sharing videos of long motorcades of cars speeding along streets where access was restricted — the first clues that Biden had arrived.

Biden travelled with a far smaller than usual retinue: Sullivan, deputy chief of staff Jen O’Malley Dillon and the director of Oval Office operations, Annie Tomasini. They were joined by his Secret Service detail, the military aide carrying the so-called “nuclear football,” a small medical team and the official White House photographer.

Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelensky hug as they say goodbye at the Memorial Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine in Russian-Ukrainian War. — AP
Joe Biden and Volodymyr Zelensky hug as they say goodbye at the Memorial Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine in Russian-Ukrainian War. — AP

Only two journalists were on board instead of the usual complement of 13. Their electronic devices were powered off and turned over to the White House for the duration of the trip into Ukraine. A small number of journalists based in Ukraine were summoned to a downtown hotel on Monday morning to join them, not informed that Biden was visiting until shortly before his arrival.

Even with Western surface-to-air missile systems bolstering Ukraine’s defenses, it was rare for a US leader to travel to a conflict zone where the US or its allies did not have control over the airspace.

The US military does not have a presence in Ukraine other than a small detachment of Marines guarding the embassy in Kyiv, making Biden’s visit more complicated than visits by prior US leaders to war zones.

“We did notify the Russians that President Biden will be travelling to Kyiv,” Sullivan told reporters. “We did so some hours before his departure for deconfliction purposes.” He declined to specify the exact message or to whom it was delivered but said the heads-up was to avoid any miscalculation that could bring the two nuclear-armed nations into direct conflict.

While Biden was in Kyiv, US surveillance planes, including E-3 Sentry airborne radar and an electronic RC-135W Rivet Joint aircraft, were keeping watch over Kyiv from Polish airspace.

The sealing off of Kyiv roads that are usually humming with traffic brought an eerie calm to the centre of the capital. It was so quiet that crows could be heard cawing as Biden and Zelensky walked from their motorcade to the gold-domed St. Michael’s Cathedral under skies as blue as the outer walls of the cathedral itself.

“Let’s walk in and take a look,” Biden said, wearing his trademark aviator sunglasses against the glare. The presidents disappeared inside as heavily armed soldiers stood guard outside.


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