KIEV, UKRAINE (AP) — President Joe Biden’s motorcade exited the White House around 3:30 am on Sunday. We didn’t use the big, flashy Air Force One on this visit. The president disappeared into the darkness aboard an Air Force C-32. This is a modified Boeing 757 usually used for domestic travel to smaller airports.
His next appearance was 20 hours later in downtown Kiev, Ukraine.
Biden’s surprise visit to Ukraine on Monday marked the first time in modern history that a U.S. leader visited a war zone outside the protection of U.S. forces.
Over the next five hours, the president made numerous stops around town in a black SUV rather than in a presidential limousine, without announcing to the Ukrainian public that he was there. But all that activity attracted enough attention that rumors of his presence leaked out before his original plan to return to Poland. White House aides were surprised that the secret had been kept so long.
But Russia knew something the Ukrainian people didn’t. U.S. officials had notified Moscow of Biden’s visit.
Since last year, the president has wanted to visit Kiev and join a parade of other Western officials pledging their support alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the capital.
Biden’s planned trip to Warsaw, Poland and President’s Day holiday provided an obvious start to work on the stop in Kiev. A small group of senior officials across the White House and US national security agencies but began working in secret for months to make it happen, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Monday.
Sullivan said the trip “required expert security, operations and logistics efforts across the U.S. government to take an inherently dangerous undertaking and make it a manageable risk.”
Once Biden was kept secret aboard an Air Force jet, the special aviation mission call sign “SAM060” was used for the plane instead of the usual “Air Force One.” We took off from Joint Base Andrews at 4:15 AM ET.
After pausing to refuel in Germany, Biden’s plane turned off its transponder and prepared for the roughly hour-long flight to Rzeszow, Poland.
He arrived in Kiev at 8:00 am on Monday, was greeted by Ambassador Brigitte Brink, and entered a convoy for a drive to the Mariinsky Palace. While he was on the ground in Ukraine, planes carrying military equipment and other supplies continued unabated from western cities to Rzeshev.
In Kiev, on the other hand, many boulevards and central blocks were blocked without explanation. People began sharing videos of long convoys of cars speeding through streets with restricted access. This is the first clue that Biden has arrived.
Sullivan, Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, and Annie Tommasini, Oval Office Operations Director. They were joined by his secret details of his service, military aides carrying so-called “nuclear footballs,” a small medical team, and an official White House photographer.
Normally there were 13 journalists on board, but only two were on board. Their electronics were turned off and handed over to the White House for the duration of their trip to Ukraine. A handful of Ukraine-based journalists were summoned to a downtown hotel to join them, not informed of their visit until just before Biden arrived Monday morning.
Despite Western surface-to-air missile systems bolstering Ukraine’s defenses, U.S. leaders have rarely traveled to conflict zones where the airspace is not controlled by the United States or its allies.
No U.S. military is present in Ukraine, except for a small detachment of Marines guarding the embassy in Kiev, so Biden’s visit is more likely than previous U.S. leaders’ visits to war zones. It’s getting complicated.
“We notified Russia that President Biden was going to Kiev,” Sullivan told reporters. He declined to specify who it was delivered to, but Heads Up said it was to avoid miscalculations that could bring the two nuclear-armed states into a direct conflict.
While Biden was in Kiev, US surveillance aircraft, including E-3 Sentry airborne radars and electronic RC-135W riveted joint aircraft, were monitoring Kiev from Polish airspace.
The closure of Kiev’s normally congested roads has brought an eerie silence to the heart of the capital. Under a sky as blue as the outer walls of the cathedral, it was so quiet that crows could be heard as Biden and Zelensky walked from the motorcade to the golden-domed St. Michael’s Cathedral.
“Let’s go in and take a look,” said Biden, shielding his trademark aviator sunglasses from the glare. He disappeared inside as heavily armed soldiers stood guard outside.
The cathedral bells rang at 11:30 am, followed soon after by the air raid sirens at 11:34 am, just before the men reappeared. The sirens were at first a distant howl that echoed through the city, seconds later the alarms of mobile phone apps rang out of people’s pockets.
These alarms were uttered by “Star Wars” actor Mark Hamill, his Luke Skywalker voice urging people to hide, warning: Your overconfidence is your weakness. ”
The two leaders walked at a measured pace through the cathedral’s main arched gates towards the square in front, showing no outward signs of concern. There, the rusting hulls of destroyed Russian tanks and other armored vehicles were stationed as harrowing reminders of the war.
When the square is not blocked off, such as during a leader’s visit, people come to see the vehicles and many take selfies.
Biden and Zelensky carry two wreaths to a memorial wall honoring Ukrainian soldiers killed since 2014, when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimea and Russia-backed fighting erupted in eastern Ukraine. He followed behind the soldiers, so he didn’t seem to care about the giant.
It was only then that the first images of Biden in the capital appeared on Ukrainian social media and the clandestine visit made global news.
The full notice, also voiced by Hamill, rang at 1:07 p.m., long after Biden had headed to the U.S. Embassy for a quick stop before departing the country.
“The air warning is over,” Hamill said. “May the strength be with you.”
Associated Press photographer Evan Butch reported in Kiev aboard Biden’s aircraft.Miller reported from Washington. Associated Press writer Aamer Madhani contributed from Washington.
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