Biden's Snap Kyiv Visit Months in Planning, Including a Heads-up to Moscow

President Joe Biden signed off on his surprise trip to Kyiv in an Oval Office huddle Friday with top security advisers after being satisfied with the final security arrangements for visiting an active war zone, according to senior administration officials.

Biden's dramatic visit Monday to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky took months of advance planning and was a closely guarded secret inside the White House, officials said, given the security risks of Biden visiting a country at war where the United States does not have an active military presence.

The White House gave Russia advance warning that Biden would make the trip, letting Moscow know several hours before he left Washington in order to tamp down tensions surrounding the visit, National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Monday.

He declined to say what response Russia offered, if any, to being given a heads up about the visit.

The president gave the greenlight for his first visit to Ukraine since the Russian invasion after making a final determination Friday that the trip carried a "manageable level of risk," Sullivan said.

"This was a historic visit, unprecedented in modern times, to have the president of the U.S. visit a capital of a nation at war where the U.S." does not have a military presence on the ground, he added.

The visit comes at a critical moment in the war, as Russia plans a major new offensive and the U.S. and its European allies face more pressure to increase military aid to Ukraine.

The trip was coordinated by a small number of officials on the National Security Council and the White House Military Office, with additional support from the Secret Service and Pentagon, said Jon Finer, the deputy national security adviser.

The president also received threat assessments from the U.S. intelligence community, Finer said.

"Only a handful of people" were aware of the visit, Finer said.

Biden's traveling party was much smaller than typical for a presidential visit abroad and included a small number of senior aides, a medical team, a photographer and security personnel.

Administration officials noted that the trip differed from visits in recent years by American presidents to Iraq and Afghanistan, where the U.S. had active military operations and could more easily coordinate security arrangements for the commander-in-chief.

Biden Kyiv
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Ukrainian presidential palace on February 20, 2023 in Kyiv, Ukraine. The US President made his first visit to Kyiv since Russia's large-scale invasion last February 24. Photo by Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via Getty Images

After arriving in Kyiv, Biden was spirited to Mariinsky Palace, where he met with Zelensky and gave brief remarks alongside his Ukrainian counterpart.

"One year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands," Biden said. "The Americans stand with you and the world stands with you."

Biden used the occasion to announce a new military aide package for Ukraine, but it did not include F16 fighter jets and other assistance Zelensky has asked for in recent months.

The two leaders met privately to discuss battlefield strategy in an effort to reach a "common understanding on what the objectives are" for the coming year, Sullivan said.

Sullivan did not provide details on the conversation, saying only that Biden and Zelensky "laid out their perspective on a number of [military] capabilities thrown about in the press."

Afterwards Biden accompanied Zelensky to a memorial for Ukrainians who have died in the war. They also stopped by St. Michael's Golden-Domed Monastery, a Kyiv landmark that has come to symbolize Ukraine's resistance to Russia.

Biden left Kyiv soon after for Poland, where he will arrive Tuesday for a two-day visit with Polish President Andrzej Duda and other Eastern European leaders.