The White House notified the Kremlin of Joe Biden’s intention to visit Kyiv hours before he departed for Ukraine, as the details began to emerge of how the US president pulled off his high-profile diplomatic coup.
Meticulously planned over several months by a tight circle of key advisers, Biden’s visit was described as “unprecedented in modern times” by his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan on the grounds that it was the first time a US president had visited “the capital of the country at war where the United States military does not control the critical infrastructure”.
“We did notify the Russians that President Biden will be traveling to Kyiv,” Sullivan said. “We did so some hours before his departure for deconfliction purposes, and because of the sensitive nature of those communications I won’t get into how they responded or what the precise nature of our message was, but I can confirm that we provided that notice.”
The US informed Moscow to avoid any misunderstanding or misjudgment between the two nuclear-armed powers, according to accounts from Washington.
Although the White House remained circumspect about how Biden travelled into Ukraine, a US official quoted by the New York Times suggested Biden arrived in Kyiv after a transatlantic flight to Poland and crossing the border by train, travelling for nearly 10 hours to Kyiv in the same way as other US officials have in recent months.
Eschewing the presidential Air Force One jet, Biden boarded an Air Force C-32, a modified Boeing 757 normally used for domestic trips to smaller airports with the call sign “SAM060,” for Special Air Mission.
Refuelling in Germany, Biden’s plane turned off its transponder for the roughly hour-long flight to Rzeszów, Poland, an airport that has served as the gateway for billions of dollars in western arms and VIP visitors into Ukraine.
Less than an hour from the border, Rzeszów is also close to the main railway line connecting the two countries.
Other foreign leaders who have come to Ukraine, including the former British prime minister Boris Johnson and the French president, Emmanuel Macron, have also come in by train from Poland – a route used by journalists, aid workers and diplomats with Ukraine’s civilian airspace closed for the past year.
However, whether Biden used Kyiv’s main station or another was unclear, with a Guardian journalist seeing no sign of extra security after coming into Kyiv central station about an hour later on Monday morning from Poland.
US presidents visiting war zones is not unheard of: three visited Iraq, including Biden’s predecessor, Donald Trump, in what were seen at the time as major security operations. Barack Obama, Trump and George W Bush also visited Afghanistan.
But compared with Kabul and the US Bagram airbase, which hosted visits, Ukraine was viewed as a very different proposition.
That, White House officials are saying, is the distinction between this trip and previous presidential visits to Afghanistan and Iraq. In those countries, there was a massive US military presence, but there is none in Ukraine, and a minimal diplomatic presence.
The active war zone is surveilled by Moscow’s electronic warfare aircraft, with Ukrainian society penetrated by Russian agents.
The risks were apparent from the outset and planned for over “a period of months” by a handful of Biden’s closest aides with input from the NSC, the White House’s military office, the Pentagon, state department, and the intelligence community.
If that flight was deliberate, it backfired, with the sirens audible during Biden’s visit serving only to underline his resolve.
Describing the security operation, Sullivan added: “That required a security operational logistical effort from professionals across the US government to take what was an inherently risky undertaking and make it a manageable level of risk.”
“But of course, there was still risk and is still risk in an endeavour like this, and President Biden felt that it was important to make this trip because of the critical juncture that we find ourselves at as we approach the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.”
The go-ahead for the trip was given only on Friday, according to White House officials, after receiving a final security briefing. Such was the level of secrecy that the handful of US pool reporters had their mobile devices taken from them before departure.
Biden had been due to leave Washington for his visit to Poland on Monday evening but, according to a small group of reporters who travelled with Biden to Kyiv, slipped out of Washington unnoticed at about 4am on Sunday.
Journalists accompanying Biden had agreed to withhold real-time details of the visit until he departed, including information about how he arrived in the Ukrainian capital, according to the Washington Post.
Jim LaPorta of Rolling Stone magazine, who was aware of the visit in advance and was asked by the White House to keep it under wraps, offered more details including how Biden was presented with an “array of plans” for this Ukraine trip, including meetings between Zelenskiy at the Polish-Ukrainian border or in the western city of Lviv.
La Porta’s story appeared to be confirmed by other off the record briefings that suggested Biden only once voiced concern over the risk, in the event it could endanger others, but ultimately decided to proceed.
In the end, however, Biden was insistent that he should visit the Ukrainian capital, which became a symbol of resistance to the invasion during the battle of Kyiv in the early weeks of the war, when Russia tried to take the city.
“He got a full presentation of a very good and very effective operational security plan. He heard that presentation, he was satisfied that the risk was manageable and he ultimately made a determination [to travel to Kyiv],” said Sullivan.
“This was risk that Joe Biden wanted to take,” added the White House communications director, Kate Bedingfield.
“It’s important to him to show up, even when it’s hard, and he directed his team to make it happen no matter how challenging the logistics.”