Around 3:30 a.m., President Joe Biden’s motorcade quietly left the White House. Sunday. The president flew on an Air Force C-32, a modified Boeing 757 often used for domestic flights to minor airports, rather than the big, showy Air Force One for this trip.
He reappeared 20 hours later, this time in Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv.
The White House claimed that despite Moscow being informed in advance, Biden’s unexpected trip to Ukraine on Monday was the first time in modern history that a U.S. leader visited a warzone beyond the control of the U.S. military.
The president made many rounds throughout town over the following five hours, traveling in a black SUV rather than the presidential limousine without informing the Ukrainian people about his whereabouts.
But, all that activities attracted so much attention that before he could return to Poland as initially intended, knowledge of his presence spread far. White House assistants were amazed that the secret remained so long.
Yet Russia was aware of information that Ukrainians were not. Russia had received notification of Biden’s visit from American officials.
Since last year, the president has been eager to join the parade of other Western officials who have been to Kiev to express their support for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the capital.
The Presidents’ Day weekend and Biden’s planned trip to Warsaw, Poland, offered a clear opportunity to stop in Kyiv.
On Monday, national security advisor Jake Sullivan said that a small group of top officials from the White House and other U.S. national security agencies began working covertly for months to make it happen. Only on Friday did Biden give his final approval.
According to Sullivan, for the trip to become a tolerable risk, it “needed a security, operational, and logistical effort from professionals across the U.S. government.”
Following Biden’s covert boarding of the Air Force airplane, the aircraft’s regular “Air Force One” call sign was replaced with “SAM060,” which stands for Special Air Mission.
After stopping in Germany for refueling, Biden’s plane turned off its transponder for the nearly hour-long journey to Rzeszow, Poland, the airport that has been the entry point for billions of dollars worth of Western armaments and dignitaries into Ukraine.
By 8 a.m., he landed in Kiev. Monday and entered his motorcade for the trip to Mariinsky Palace after being met by Ambassador Bridget Brink.
Flights from Western locations to Rzeszow carrying supplies and other cargo continued unabated even while he was in Ukraine.
In the meantime, many central blocks and significant thoroughfares in Kiev were blocked off for no apparent reason.
Individuals began posting footage of lengthy motorcades of cars traveling at high speeds through streets with restricted access; these were the first cues that Biden had.
Sullivan, Jen O’Malley Dillon, the deputy chief of staff, and Annie Tomasini, the director of Oval Office operations, made up Biden’s significantly smaller than usual entourage. A small medical team, the official White House photographer, the military aide carrying the alleged “nuclear football,” and members of his Secret Service detail also joined them.
Instead of the customary 13 journalists, only two were present. During the travel inside Ukraine, their electronics were turned off and given to the White House.
On Monday morning, a small group of Ukrainian-based journalists was called to join them in a downtown hotel; they weren’t made aware that Biden was coming until just before his arrival.
It was uncommon for a U.S. leader to visit a battle area where the U.S. or its allies did not have control over the skies, even with Western surface-to-air missile systems augmenting Ukraine’s defenses.
As there is no U.S. military presence in Ukraine other than a tiny Marine detachment defending the embassy in Kyiv, Biden’s travel is more complex than trips to war zones made by previous U.S. presidents.
Sullivan said, “We let the Russians know President Biden will visit Kyiv.” He declined to disclose the precise message or to whom it was conveyed but said the heads-up was to avoid any calculating error that could bring the two into conflict. “We did so several hours before his departure for deconfliction objectives.”
As Biden was in Kyiv, American surveillance aircraft from Polish airspace, including an electronic RC-135W Rivet Joint and airborne radar E-3 Sentry, maintained watch over the Ukrainian capital.
The hub of the city of Kiev experienced an unnerving silence as the ordinarily busy highways were sealed off.
Crows could be heard crowing as Biden and Zelenskyy made their way from their motorcade to the gold-domed St. Michael’s Cathedral under skies that matched the color of the cathedral’s outside walls in blue.
Biden, shielding his eyes from the light with his signature aviator sunglasses, remarked, “Let’s stroll in and look.” When extremely armed soldiers stood to watch outside, the presidents disappeared inside.
Mark Hamill, who plays Luke Skywalker in “Star Wars,” provided the voiceover for those sirens. He warned listeners to seek cover and issued the following advice: “Don’t be irresponsible. Your vulnerability is your overconfidence.
The two leaders entered the square in front of the cathedral through its arched front gate at a controlled pace, showing no anxiety symptoms. There, rusted hulks of wrecked Russian tanks and other armored vehicles had been positioned as sad relics of the conflict.
Many visit the square to view the vehicles when it isn’t closed off, as during the leaders’ visit, and many take selfies.
When delivering two wreaths to the wall of memory honoring Ukrainian troops dead since 2014—the year Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean peninsula, and Russian-backed combat broke out in eastern Ukraine—Biden and Zelenskyy appeared to give the hulks no thought.
Only then did the first pictures of Biden in the capital appear on Ukrainian social media, visiting’s secrecy international news.
Long after Biden had left for the United States, at 1:07 p.m., Hamill provided the voice for the all-clear announcement.
Embassy to make a quick stop before leaving the nation.
The air alert has ended, according to Hamill. The force is with you, I say.