Biden: ‘Russia’s aim was to wipe Ukraine off the map. Putin’s war of conquest is failing’

The US president made an unannounced trip to Kyiv to meet with Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a gesture of solidarity days before the anniversary of Moscow’s invasion

US President Joe Biden (R) is greeted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a visit in Kyiv on February 20, 2023.
US President Joe Biden (R) is greeted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy during a visit in Kyiv on February 20, 2023.DIMITAR DILKOFF (AFP)

US President Joe Biden made an unannounced visit Monday to Ukraine to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy in a gesture of solidarity that comes days before the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion on February 24, 2022. Biden met with Zelenskiy at the Ukrainian leader’s official Mariinsky Palace residence and announced a further $500 million in US assistance, on top of the more than $50 billion already provided, while reassuring Zelenskiy of American and allied support as the conflict continues. “One year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands,” Biden said.

Biden’s Ukraine visit came at a crucial juncture in the war as Washington seeks to keep allies united in their support for Kyiv. The war is expected to intensify in the coming weeks, with both sides preparing for spring offensives. Zelenskiy is pressing for the delivery of pledged weapon systems and heavy armor and has repeatedly called on Kyiv’s NATO allies to provide fighter jets to Ukraine – something that Biden and European leaders have so far proved reluctant to do. The latest package approved by Washington includes shells for howitzers, anti-tank missiles, air surveillance radars and other aid but no new advanced weaponry. Zelenskiy said he and Biden spoke about “long-range weapons and the weapons that may still be supplied to Ukraine even though it wasn’t supplied before.” But he did not detail any new commitments. “Our negotiations were very fruitful,” Zelenskiy added.

Biden’s mission with his visit to Kyiv – the US president was also scheduled to travel to Warsaw later on Monday – was designed to underscore that Washington is prepared to stick with Ukraine for “as long as it takes” to repel Russian forces even as public opinion polling suggests that US and allied support for providing weaponry and direct economic assistance has started to soften. For Zelenskiy, the symbolism of having the US president stand side by side with him on Ukrainian soil as the anniversary of the Kremlin’s full-scale invasion approaches is no small matter, as he prods the US and European allies to provide more advanced weaponry and to step up the pace of delivery.

Zelenskiy traveled to Washington in December, in what was his first known trip overseas since the Russian invasion, where he addressed Congress and held talks with Biden over ramping up military aid, particularly with the provision of Patriot missile systems. “The Patriots will help us create a safe airspace; it will be the only way to stop the aggression of a terrorist state. We need to survive this Winter,” the Ukrainian leader said.

“The American people have been with you every step of the way. And we will stay with you. We will stay with you for as long as it takes,” Biden said during a joint news conference in the White House.

The return visit Monday gave the US president an opportunity to get a firsthand look at the devastation the Russian invasion has caused on Ukraine.

Thousands of Ukrainian troops and civilians have been killed, with some estimates suggesting Kyiv may have suffered in excess of 100,000 battlefield casualties. Millions of refugees have fled the war and Ukraine has suffered tens of billions of dollars of damage to critical civilian infrastructure under sustained missile and drone attacks.

The trip also marks an act of defiance against Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had assumed Moscow’s military might would swiftly overrun Kyiv. A year later, the Ukrainian capital stands and a semblance of normalcy has returned to the city with fighting concentrated in the country’s east. Biden recalled speaking with Zelenskiy on the night of the invasion, saying, “That dark night one year ago, the world was literally at the time bracing for the fall of Kyiv. Perhaps even the end of Ukraine.”

Biden warned that the “brutal and unjust war” is far from won. “The cost that Ukraine has had to bear has been extraordinarily high. And the sacrifices have been far too great,” Biden said. “We know that there’ll be very difficult days and weeks and years ahead. But Russia’s aim was to wipe Ukraine off the map. Putin’s war of conquest is failing. He’s counting on us not sticking together,” Biden said of the Russian leader. “He thought he could outlast us. I don’t think he’s thinking that right now.”

Biden also got a short first-hand taste of the terror that Ukrainians have lived with for close to a year, as air raids sirens howled over the capital just as he and Zelenskiy were exiting a cathedral they visited together. Looking solemn, they continued unperturbed to stand in front of a wall honoring Ukrainian soldiers killed since 2014, when the conflict in the Donbas region erupted between pro-Russia militias and the Ukrainian military.

Though Western surface-to-air missile systems have bolstered Ukraine’s defensive capabilities, the visit marked a rare occasion where a US president has traveled to a conflict zone where Washington or its allies do not have control over the airspace The White House would not go into specifics, but national security adviser Jake Sullivan said that it notified Moscow of Biden’s visit to Kyiv shortly before his departure from Washington “for deconfliction purposes” in an effort to avoid any miscalculation that could bring the two nuclear-armed nations into direct conflict.

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 other recent visits to war zones by previous US presidents.

At the White House, planning for Biden’s visit to Kyiv was tightly controlled – with a relatively small group of aides briefed on the plans – because of security concerns. Biden quietly departed from Joint Base Andrews near Washington shortly after 4am on Sunday, making a stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany before making his way into Ukraine.

Other western leaders have made the trip to Kyiv since the start of the war. In June, French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and then Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi traveled together by night train to Kyiv to meet with Zelenskiy. British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak visited Kyiv in November shortly after taking office.

Biden’s Kyiv trip was his first visit to a war zone as president. His recent predecessors, Donald Trump, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, made surprise visits to Afghanistan and Iraq during their presidencies to meet with US troops and those countries’ leaders.

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