If you think you have a stressful job then just spare a thought for the people tasked with one of the trickiest and most high-stakes missions imaginable – how to get one of the most-watched and important men in the world into a war zone unscathed and unnoticed.
This was the mission of President Joe Biden’s staff this week as he visited Kyiv on Monday in an incredible show of support for Ukraine that involved strolling through the center of the capital with President Zelensky as air raid sirens rang out.
Here’s how it happened…
Traveling to and from Kyiv these days is a bit tricky for anyone – there have been no direct flights to the capital in over a year now so even the quickest of international trips to neighboring countries take the best part of a full day.
President Biden’s surprise visit from Washington D.C. began in the dead of night at a military airport hangar outside Washington.
At 4:00 am (0900 GMT) Sunday – unbeknown to the world’s media, the Washington political establishment or American voters – the 80-year-old President boarded an Air Force Boeing 757, known as a C-32.
The plane, a smaller version of the one U.S. presidents normally use on international trips, was parked well away from where Biden would usually board.
And a telling detail: the shade on every window had been pulled down, AFP reports.
Who was traveling with him?
Fifteen minutes later, Biden, a handful of security personnel, a small medical team, close advisors, and two journalists who had been sworn to secrecy, took off en route to a war zone.
The U.S. president is perhaps the most constantly scrutinized person on the planet. Members of the press follow Biden wherever he goes – whether to church or international summits. Every word he says in public is recorded, transcribed and published.
In this case, though, the usual pool of reporters, which for foreign trips would comprise 13 journalists from radio, TV, photo and written press organizations, was cut to one photographer and one writer.
The reporter, Sabrina Siddiqui from The Wall Street Journal, revealed – once allowed by the White House to publish details – that she and the photographer were summoned to Joint Base Andrews outside Washington at 2:15 am.
Their phones were confiscated – not to be returned until Biden finally arrived in the Ukrainian capital about 24 hours later.
Where was there first stop?
They flew for about seven hours from Washington to the U.S. military base in Ramstein, Germany, for refueling. Here, too, the window shades stayed down and they did not leave the plane.
The next flight was to Poland, landing in Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport.
This may be a Polish airport, but since the full-scale war began it has also become an international hub for the U.S.-led effort to arm the Ukrainians, funneling billions of dollars of weaponry and ammunition.
What extra precautions did they take?
Up to this point, Siddiqui and the photographer, the Associated Press’ Evan Vucci, had not seen Biden himself.
That didn’t change at the airport or when they got into a motorcade of SUVs. Reporters traveling with Biden often go in motorcades, but something was very different about this one: no sirens or anything else to announce that the U.S. President was headed to Przemysl Glowny – the Polish train station near the Ukrainian border.
Did the Russians know about the trip?
They did. The U.S. gave a heads up to Moscow “hours” ahead of Biden’s “risky” surprise trip to avoid any chance of conflict, a senior White House aide said.
“We did notify the Russians that President Biden will be traveling to Kyiv. We did so some hours before his departure for deconfliction purposes,” National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, who accompanied the president on the trip, told reporters.
“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,” he continued.
How did they cross the border?
It was already 9:15 pm local time as they pulled up at a train. The journalists were told to board – still, without laying eyes on Biden.
Running a route that has brought untold quantities of aid into Ukraine and untold numbers of Ukrainian civilians fleeing the other way, the train had about eight cars.
Most of the people aboard, Siddiqui said, were “heavy security.” Biden is an avowed train buff.
He loves recounting his years of commuting by rail between Washington and his home in Delaware when he was a senator, bringing up two young sons after their mother died in a car accident. One of his nicknames is “Amtrak Joe.”
This 10-hour trip into Ukraine, though, was unlike any taken by a modern U.S. president – journeying into an active war zone where, unlike presidential visits to Afghanistan or Iraq, U.S. troops are not the ones ostensibly providing security.
The train rolled into Kyiv with the rising sun. Biden, who had last visited the Ukrainian capital when he was vice president under Barack Obama disembarked at about 8:07 am.
“It's good to be back in Kyiv,” he said.
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Comments ( 1)
it had been more powerful to let russia know some high ranking US official goes to Ukraine at the moment the train with Biden on it entered Ukraine