Biden’s Surreal and Secretive Journey Into a War Zone

WASHINGTON — 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 likely have guessed had they stopped to wonder.

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

In fact, he was on a journey that no modern American president had taken before.

In an audacious move meant to demonstrate American resolve to help Ukraine defeat the Russian forces that invaded a year ago this week, Mr. Biden traveled covertly to Kyiv to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky 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.

“I thought it was critical that there not be any doubt, none whatsoever, about U.S. support for Ukraine in the war,” Mr. Biden said during his five hours on the ground in Kyiv before leaving again. He was speaking, in effect, not just to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia but to fellow Americans back home doubting his decision to invest so deeply in Ukraine’s war. “It’s not just about freedom in Ukraine,” he said. “It’s about freedom of democracy at large.”

Never in Mr. Biden’s lifetime had a president ventured into a war zone that was not under the control of American forces, much less on a relatively slow-moving locomotive that would take nine and a half 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.

Mr. Biden joined Mr. Zelensky in laying a wreath at the Wall of Remembrance at St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery.Credit…Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times

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 American and European leaders having made the trip, Mr. Biden and his team gambled that he could get in and out safely.

The State of the War

  • Portending a Global Rift: Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said that China is strongly considering giving military aid to Russia, a move that would transform the war into a struggle involving three superpowers.
  • Western Support: Nearly one year into the war, American and European leaders pledged to remain steadfast in their support for Ukraine amid worries about how long their resolve will last.
  • Harris’s Comments: Vice President Kamala Harris declared that the United States had formally concluded that Russia had committed “crimes against humanity” in its invasion of Ukraine.
  • A Russian Mole in Germany?: A director at Germany’s spy service was arrested on suspicion of passing intelligence to Russia. German officials and allies worry just how deep the problem goes.

“Of course there was still risk, and is still risk, in an endeavor like this,” Jake Sullivan, the president’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.”

It was a long journey and a surreal one. This was not how Mr. Biden was used to seeing Ukraine. He visited six times as vice president — three times in a six-month stretch — arriving in an American jet, gazing out the window in daylight to take in the sights of Kyiv from above. Now he was sneaking in under cover of darkness, arriving shortly after sunrise.

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, Mr. Biden focused on the risk his visit could pose to others, not himself, one aide said.

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

Mr. 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.

The president 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, Mr. 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 photographer and two journalists awaited him.

The two journalists, Sabrina Siddiqui from The Wall Street Journal and Evan Vucci from The Associated Press, had been summoned to the White House on Friday and sworn to secrecy. They were told to wait for further information in an email whose subject line would read: “Arrival instructions for the golf tourney.”

The two-person journalism pool was a radical departure from even other security-sensitive presidential trips, when the usual complement of 13 reporters and photographers was taken. But it would not be the only unusual feature of the trip.

Since Abraham Lincoln rode to the front lines outside Washington to watch battles in Northern Virginia during the Civil War, no president has gotten close to combat. Franklin D. Roosevelt visited North Africa; Lyndon B. Johnson went to Vietnam; George W. Bush and Barack Obama traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan; and Donald J. Trump went to Afghanistan.

But in all those cases, they went to countries or areas under control of American forces. In this case, the United States military would not be present in Ukraine, nor would it control the airspace. American military planes were spotted hovering in eastern Poland near the border during the trip, but officials said they never entered Ukrainian airspace out of concern that it would be taken as the sort of direct American intervention that Mr. Biden has avoided.

Arriving at Andrews on early Sunday morning, the two journalists surrendered their phones, not to be returned for 24 hours. They were taken not to the usual blue and white Boeing 747 designated as Air Force One when the president is on board but to an Air Force C-32, more typically used for domestic trips to airports with shorter runways. The plane was parked in the dark next to a hangar with shades drawn.

Mr. Biden arrived about 4 a.m., and the plane took off at 4:15 a.m. for the flight across the Atlantic. Mr. Biden was joined by a handful of aides — Mr. Sullivan; Jen O’Malley Dillon, a deputy chief of staff; and Annie Tomasini, the 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.

Mr. 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 American military, but flying into Ukraine is not deemed safe.

“Kyiv,” Mr. Biden said before leaving, “has captured a part of my heart, I must say.”Credit…Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times

The train pulled away from the station without ceremony at 9:37 p.m. and crossed the border into Ukraine around 10 p.m. The White House was so intent on keeping the secret that it lied to reporters back in Washington. About four hours after Mr. Biden crossed the border into Ukraine, his office back in Washington issued a public schedule falsely stating that the president was still in the nation’s capital and not planning to leave for Europe until Monday evening.

Dressed in casual clothes, Mr. 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, Mr. Biden recounted his telephone call with Mr. Zelensky 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, Mr. 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, Mr. Biden disembarked, now wearing a blue suit with a tie featuring Ukrainian colors. He was greeted by Bridget A. Brink, the American ambassador.

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

During his five hours in the city, he met with Mr. Zelensky 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 United States 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 the president 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 on Tuesday. His mind, aides said, remained on his last stop.

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

Peter Baker reported from Washington, and Michael D. Shear from Warsaw.

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