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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden’s surreal and secretive journey into a war zone

President Joe Biden, left foreground, is escorted by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy of Ukraine, left background, as he visits the Wall of Remembrance, a memorial to the nation’s fallen soldiers, in Kyiv, Ukraine’s embattled capital, on Monday, Feb. 20, 2023.

By Peter Baker and Michael D. Shear

As the train rumbled across the Ukrainian countryside through a long night, the view outside the window left little to see, just the occasional streetlight or shadows of buildings in the distance. But neither could those watching the train go by see who was inside, nor would they probably have guessed had they stopped to wonder.

Huddled aboard the anonymous train were U.S. President Joe Biden and a skeleton team of advisers accompanied by armed and edgy Secret Service agents, embarking on a secret mission to visit Kyiv, the capital. As far as the world was concerned, Biden was back in Washington, home for the evening after a date night at an Italian restaurant.

In fact, he was on a journey unlike any other taken by a modern U.S. president.

In an audacious move meant to demonstrate American resolve to help Ukraine defeat the Russian forces that invaded a year ago this week, Biden traveled covertly to Kyiv to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and promise even more weapons for the country’s defenders. The visit produced an indelible image of the two presidents striding to a memorial for fallen soldiers in broad daylight even as an air-raid siren blared, a show of defiance of Moscow quickly beamed around the world.

Never in Biden’s lifetime had a president ventured into a war zone that was not under the control of U.S. forces, much less on a relatively slow-moving locomotive that would take 9 1/2 hours to reach its destination. During that time, he was potentially exposed to circumstances beyond the control of the hypervigilant security phalanx that normally seeks to shield a commander in chief from every conceivable physical danger and minimize his time outside a hardened shelter.

For much of the past year, in fact, most of the people around the president resisted any urge to go, on the assumption that it was too risky. But nearly a year after the Russian invasion, with Ukrainian troops faring far better than anyone expected at the start and other U.S. and European leaders having made the trip, Biden and his team gambled that he could get in and out safely.

“Of course there was still risk, and is still risk, in an endeavor like this,” Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, told reporters by phone from the train as it departed Kyiv for the return trip to Poland. “And President Biden felt that it was important to make this trip because of the critical juncture that we find ourselves at as we approach the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.”

The trip had been in the works for months, aides said, as just a trusted few officials at the White House, Pentagon, Secret Service and intelligence agencies weighed the threat assessments. In meetings, Biden focused on the risk his visit could pose to others, not himself, one aide said.

Finally, the decision came to a head Friday, when Biden gathered with a handful of top advisers in the Oval Office and consulted with others by phone. He opted to go.

Biden was already set to travel to Poland for the anniversary. Often when presidents make secret stops in uncertain locations, the visits are added to the end of an existing trip. In this case, the White House decided to put it on the front end in hopes of keeping the secret.

Biden played his part in the ruse. On Saturday evening, he and Jill Biden went to Mass at Georgetown University, then stopped by the National Museum of American History and finally went out to dinner at the Red Hen restaurant, where they enjoyed the rigatoni, widely considered the best in the nation’s capital. When the couple arrived back at the White House, most people might have assumed they were in for the night.

But a few hours after midnight, Biden was spirited out of the mansion and taken to Joint Base Andrews in the Maryland suburbs, where a small coterie of aides, security agents, a medical team, a White House photographer and two journalists awaited him.

Biden arrived about 4 a.m., and the plane took off at 4:15 a.m. for the flight across the Atlantic. Biden was joined by a handful of aides — Sullivan; Jen O’Malley Dillon, a deputy chief of staff; and Annie Tomasini, director of Oval Office operations. The plane touched down at Ramstein Air Base in Germany at 5:13 p.m. local time, where, with its shades down, it was refueled before taking off again at 6:29 p.m. It then made its way to Rzeszów-Jasionka Airport in Poland, landing at 7:57 p.m.

Biden was put in a motorcade with roughly 20 cars and driven without sirens for about an hour along a mostly empty highway to the small city of Przemyśl and taken to the train station where many thousands of refugees have arrived from Ukraine over the past year. Arriving at 9:15 p.m., the travelers found few people there and the stalls closed.

The motorcade pulled right up to a mostly purple train, with several cars painted blue with a yellow stripe along the middle to resemble the Ukrainian flag. Rarely does a president ride in any vehicle other than those of the Secret Service or U.S. military, but flying into Ukraine is not deemed safe.

The train pulled away from the station without ceremony at 9:37 p.m. and crossed the border into Ukraine around 10 p.m.

Dressed in casual clothes, Biden had a hard time sleeping during the long train ride, according to a senior official who asked not to be identified describing the trip. The president spent the ride recalling his previous trips to Kyiv, including a speech to the Ukrainian parliament and his remarks on his final trip in 2017. He read a briefing memo on the history of Kyiv back to its founding and reflected on his history with the city.

Talking with aides, Biden recounted his telephone call with Zelenskyy on Feb. 24 last year as Russia’s invasion began, marveling about how the Ukrainian leader told him at the time that he was not sure when they would speak again. Now, Biden mused to aides, here they were a year later about to meet face to face in Kyiv.

After the all-night trip, the train pulled into Kyiv-Pasazhyrsky station at 8 a.m. local time. The platform had been cleared. On a sunny day with blue skies and a brisk chill in the air, Biden disembarked, now wearing a blue suit with a tie featuring Ukrainian colors. He was greeted by Bridget A. Brink, the U.S. ambassador.

“It’s good to be back in Kyiv,” Biden said.

During his five hours in the city, he met with Zelenskyy at Mariinsky Palace, joined him in laying a wreath at the Wall of Remembrance at St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery and stopped by the U.S. Embassy to meet with its staff.

Then he headed back to the same train station, departing at 1:10 p.m. On the long, meandering train ride back to Poland, the senior official said Biden issued a series of directions on military, economic and diplomatic areas to help Ukraine. He was seized with the meetings he had just had. Once again, he could not sleep much.

He arrived at the Przemyśl Główny station at 8:45 p.m. local time, and he headed back to the airport for a flight to Warsaw, where he will deliver a speech Tuesday. His mind, aides said, remained on his previous stop.

“Kyiv,” he had said before leaving, “has captured a part of my heart, I must say.”

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