President Joe Biden did little to tip his hand about his unannounced visit to Kyiv, heading to church on Saturday afternoon and then taking his wife out to dinner at a cozy Washington restaurant.
But by the predawn hours Sunday, Biden was already aboard a U.S. military plane crossing the Atlantic, the first leg of an itinerary to the Ukrainian capital carried out under cloak-and-dagger secrecy after months of meticulous planning by a close circle of advisers.
Americans woke up on a public holiday, Presidents Day, to clips of Biden in his trademark aviator sunglasses strolling in the cold next to President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as air raid sirens blared in the background.
“Kyiv has captured a part of my heart,” he said standing alongside Zelenskyy while announcing $460 million in additional military aid.
This account of how Biden slipped into a war zone is based on U.S. officials who spoke on the record after the president had departed the capital city. His trip began with a 4 a.m. departure from a military airport outside Washington, continued through a 10-hour train ride from Poland into Ukraine, and culminated in his arrival Monday morning in Kyiv, where he stayed five hours.
The war is at a pivotal stage, with a weariness setting in about the likelihood of a prolonged conflict that could put pressure on Ukraine to enter peace talks. Zelenskyy needed a shot in the arm and Biden came in person to provide that psychological boost two months after the Ukrainian leader visited Washington.
It was during a huddle in the Oval Office on Friday that Biden made his final decision to go. Even inside his own White House and Pentagon, very few people knew about it.
Indeed, Biden decided that sending the message that the U.S. stayed committed to Ukraine was worth the risk of traveling to a country at war, one where the U.S. does not control the infrastructure and has a very small diplomatic presence, was manageable.
The question then turned to the delicate matter of when to tell the Russians. “For deconfliction purposes” the Kremlin was notified “some hours before” Biden’s departure, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters.
No details were provided about how Russia took the news, and there has been no formal response to Biden’s presence in Ukraine.
The trip will draw parallels with past presidential visits to war zones like Iraq or Afghanistan, and yet it was potentially far more perilous. Unlike those places, the U.S. didn’t control airspace or airports. For this reason, it was planned on a far smaller scale.
To avert the risk of any leaks and also for security reasons, it was determined that the traveling party would be very small: only a handful of Biden’s closest aides, a small medical team, two journalists and Biden’s security detail.
In hindsight, there was something unusual about how Biden kicked off his weekend.
Typically he and first lady Jill Biden go back to their home in Wilmington, Delaware. This time, however, they stayed in Washington.
They attended Mass on the campus of Georgetown University. That was followed by a visit to the National Museum of American History, where they viewed an exhibition on “The First Ladies.”
The day was capped off with a plate of rigatoni at the Red Hen, where fellow diners stood up and clapped as the couple left the restaurant at 7:47 p.m.
Within hours he would be off on the most consequential overseas trip of his presidency. By 4:15 a.m., Biden was on board Air Force One with Sullivan, Deputy Chief of Staff Jen O’Malley Dillon, Director of Oval Office Operations Annie Tomasini and other aides. They were headed for Poland.
The president travels with a media pool but this time around all but two journalists were going to be left behind.
Photographer Evan Vucci of The Associated Press and reporter Sabrina Siddiqui of The Wall Street Journal were chosen from the originally scheduled group of media travelers and handed over their cellphones about two hours before the plane took off.
Meanwhile, over in Kyiv, a few reporters were being told late on Sunday night to show up at the Hyatt early the next morning. The logistics on both sides of the ocean were well underway.
After touching down in Poland, the president embarked on a 430-mile journey by train. He arrived in Kyiv at 8 a.m. local time (1 a.m. Washington time) wearing a blue and yellow striped tie, the colors of the Ukrainian flag.
Biden arrived at Mariinsky Palace in a white Toyota SUV instead of the usual presidential motorcade vehicles. Staff didn’t ride in the Beast or a presidential SUV.
He was greeted by Zelenskyy in his signature green military fatigues and his wife, Olena. “Thank you for coming,” Zelenskyy said as he shook Biden’s hand.
In shaking the hand of Olena, Biden immediately asked, “How are the children?”
The two men conferred in private for about 30 minutes. “I thought it was critical that there not be any doubt, none whatsoever, about U.S. support for Ukraine in the war,” Biden told reporters who entered the bilateral meeting briefly.
They emerged to face the cameras together.
“Russia’s aim was to wipe Ukraine off the map,” Biden said of Russian President Vladimir Putin's invasion of Ukraine. “He’s just been plain wrong. One year later, the evidence is right here in this room. We stand here together.”
Yet the most iconic scenes that will go down in history will be those of Biden and Zelenskyy walking side by side in downtown Kyiv.
As they left St. Michael’s Gold-Domed Cathedral, itself surrounded by rifle-wielding soldiers and located in a central square where burnt-out Russian tanks have been placed, the sound of air raid sirens was a stark reminder of the everyday reality of Ukrainians.
By 1:57 p.m. Biden had been whisked away again, having promised to stand with Ukraine “as long as it takes.” A plaque with his name was added to the Walk of the Brave in Kyiv’s Constitution Square.
It was his eighth visit to a place he’d gotten to know well over the years, when as vice president to Barack Obama he had been made point person on Ukraine. But this one is the one that will live on. It was, as Zelenskyy put it: “Historic. Timely. Brave.”