President Biden made a covert journey to Kyiv on Monday, breaking cover to join Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the nation’s capital.
It was a huge moment, just days before the anniversary of Russia’s invasion. It also came at a time when American public support for Ukraine appears to be eroding, at least in some polls.
That’s problematic for Biden, who has risked an enormous amount of political capital on the conflict, casting it as an epochal struggle between the free world and authoritarian expansionism.
Biden is now back in the relative safety of Poland.
Here are the five biggest takeaways from his trip inside Ukraine.
The big headline: ‘Ukraine stands’
President Joe Biden, right, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy talk during an unannounced visit in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
There was no doubt about the main soundbite in Biden’s remarks with Zelensky at the Mariinsky Palace.
Biden referred back to the night when Russian tanks first began rolling into Ukraine.
The U.S. president said that, then, the world “was bracing for the fall of Kyiv…perhaps even the end of Ukraine.”
But, he added, “One year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands.”
It was as pithy a summation as possible of the extraordinary defiance offered by Ukraine, enabled by support from the U.S. and other Western allies.
It was also a reminder of how grim the situation seemed at the start of the war, with many military experts believing Russian forces would sweep Ukraine’s army aside with ease.
Instead, it is Russian President Vladimir Putin who appears stuck in a quagmire now.
Still, Putin looks determined to grind on and Ukraine is not anywhere close to victory.
In that light, Biden’s rallying call was a reminder of what is at stake — at least as he sees it — as the war enters its second year.
Biden got in and out safely
This was Biden’s first trip to Ukraine since the war begin — and it was a real risk.
Numerous other Western leaders have visited Kyiv during the war, as have other senior American politicians. Then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made the journey last spring.
But the logistical challenges of getting an American president in and out of a war zone — one where there is no significant U.S. military presence on the ground — were of a whole different order.
Biden traveled first to Poland, from where he traveled by train to Kyiv. According to pool reports, the train stopped at least once to add more security personnel to an already-significant presence.
Only two people accompanied Biden as members of the traveling media pool, whereas normally that number is roughly a dozen for overseas trips.
Even the media arrangements had their share of subterfuge, with the two members of the media being informed of plans for the trip in an email which had “arrival instructions for the golf tourney” as its subject line.
National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters that the White House told Russia about Biden’s trip shortly before it took place “for deconfliction purposes.”
In plain terms, the administration wanted to avoid catastrophe if Russian forces were to strike Kyiv and harm Biden, by accident or design.
More military aid — but no big escalation
The White House clearly didn’t want the visit to be purely symbolic.
So Biden announced a further tranche of military aid, worth about half a billion dollars.
He described the hardware as including more artillery ammunition and more anti-tank Javelin rockets as well as “anti-armor systems [and] air surveillance radars that’ll protect Ukrainian people from aerial bombardments.”
Those are clearly important in bolstering Ukraine’s defenses. But the announcement was also notable because there was no suggestion of the U.S. pushing forward with more advanced weaponry than Ukraine has already received.
Zelensky, for instance, has sought F-16 fighter jets, which Biden has so far refused to provide.
There was no sign of that changing. The U.S.’s announcement last month that it would supply Abrams tanks to Ukraine remains the most recent escalation of that kind.
Visit fails to quell criticism from DeSantis, others in GOP
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis on Feb. 15, 2023, at Palm Beach Atlantic University in West Palm Beach, Fla. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
Most Republican elected officials believe there should be continued aid to Ukraine, though many are calling for greater accountability around how where the money and material goes.
Some Republicans are making more strident criticisms, however — even amid Biden’s trip.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) told “Fox & Friends” Monday that Biden was “very concerned about those borders halfway around the world. He’s not done anything to secure our own border here at home.”
DeSantis, a leading potential candidate for the GOP’s 2024 presidential nomination, added, “We have a lot of problems accumulating here in our own country that he is neglecting.”
Some of the most confrontational Republican House members dialed the rhetoric up even further.
Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) accused Biden of “ditching America for Ukraine” on the Presidents’ Day holiday, alleging that this was consistent with how Biden “ditched America’s interests since the start of his presidency.”
Rep. Scott Perry (R-Pa.), also on Twitter, called it “breathtaking” that Biden “can show up in Ukraine to ensure their border is secure but can’t do the same for America.”
Biden takes new aim at Putin
President Joe Biden walks at St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral on a surprise visit, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023, in Kyiv. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
Biden in his remarks with Zelensky took new aim at Putin, reiterating his view that the Russian president had fallen victim to catastrophic hubris.
Saying that Russia had sought to wipe Ukraine out entirely, Biden argued that “Putin’s war of conquest is failing.”
He went on to paint a vivid picture of the Kremlin’s missteps and their effects:
“Russia’s military has lost half its territory it once occupied. Young, talented Russians are fleeing by the tens of thousands, not wanting to come back to Russia. Not just fleeing from the military, fleeing from Russia itself, because they see no future in their country. Russia’s economy is now a backwater, isolated and struggling.”
Biden has sounded similar themes before. But the degree to which he leaned into them again Monday showed the battle for hearts and minds is still being waged fiercely.