Biden walks through Kyiv to show determination ahead of war anniversary
By Pavel Polityuk and Max Hunder
KIEV (Reuters) – US President Joe Biden made an unannounced visit through central Kyiv on Monday and pledged to stand by Ukraine for as long as needed, on a trip planned to reach the Kremlin ahead of the one-year anniversary eclipsed by the Russian invasion.
Biden in his signature aviator glasses and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in a green combat fatigues walked side by side toward a golden-domed cathedral on a bright winter morning pierced by the sound of air raid sirens.
“When (Russian President Vladimir) Putin launched his invasion almost a year ago, he thought Ukraine was weak and the West divided. He thought he could outlive us. But he was dead wrong,” Biden said.
“The costs that Ukraine had to pay are extraordinarily high. The sacrifices were far too great. … We know we have difficult days, weeks and years ahead of us.”
Burned-out Russian tanks stand in front of the cathedral, symbolizing Moscow’s failed assault on the capital at the start of its invasion, which began on February 24. His forces quickly reached the city walls of Kiev – only to be repulsed by unexpectedly fierce resistance.
Since then, Russia’s war has killed tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers on both sides, cities have been reduced to rubble and millions of refugees have fled. Russia says it has annexed nearly a fifth of Ukraine, while the West has pledged tens of billions of dollars in military aid to Kiev.
“This visit of the US President to Ukraine, the first in 15 years, is the most important visit in the entire history of Ukraine-US relations,” Zelenskyy said.
Biden traveled by night train from Poland to the Ukrainian capital, arriving at 8am Monday after about 10 hours before returning there by the same route, departing just after 1pm (1100 GMT), according to a White Pool report of a Wall Street Journal reporter. In the evening he reached the Polish border town of Przemysl.
Biden, along with other heads of state and government from countries on NATO’s eastern flank, is scheduled to meet Poland’s President Andrzej Duda in Warsaw.
While Biden was in Kyiv, the State Department announced an additional $460 million in U.S. aid to Ukraine, including $450 million in artillery ammunition, anti-tank systems and air defense radars, and $10 million for energy infrastructure.
European Union foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said the bloc would approve more sanctions ahead of the anniversary of the conflict, which Russia is describing as a “special military operation”.
Russia was notified ahead of Biden’s departure, officials in Washington and Moscow said, apparently to avoid the risk of an attack on Kiev while he was there.
The trip came a day before Putin was due to deliver a major speech on Tuesday setting out goals for the second year of what he’s now calling a proxy war against Washington’s armed might and the transatlantic military alliance NATO.
“For the Kremlin, of course, this is seen as further evidence that the United States was betting on Russia’s strategic defeat in the war, and that the war itself has irrevocably become a war between Russia and the West,” said Russian political analyst Tatiana Stanovaya .
Russia has sent thousands of conscripts into Ukraine for a winter offensive, but has made little gains in frozen trench attacks along the Eastern Front in recent weeks. Kyiv and the West see it as a push to woo Putin for victories a year after he instigated Europe’s biggest war since World War II.
Moscow received its own signal of diplomatic support on Monday, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi expected for talks. China has remained publicly neutral about the conflict, despite signing a borderless friendship pact with Russia weeks before the invasion.
Washington has feared in recent days that Beijing could start supplying arms to Moscow. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said the United States was “in no position to make demands on China.”
A diplomatic source, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Reuters that Wang Yi would discuss Chinese ideas for a political settlement to the war. Ukraine says any diplomatic solution will require the withdrawal of Russian forces from its territory.
Russia is trying to gain full control of two eastern provinces that make up Ukraine’s industrial Donbass region. It has launched attacks in locations ranging from Kreminna in the north to Vuhledar in the south, and has secured its biggest gains around the mining town of Bakhmut.
Kiev, which is set to absorb a large influx of Western arms for a planned counter-offensive in the coming months, has focused primarily on battlefield defense lately, claiming to be inflicting huge casualties on attacking Russian forces.
Three civilians were killed in Russian shelling on Monday, Ukrainian regional officials said – one in the Donetsk region and two in the Kherson region.
Britain’s MoD said Russia’s casualties included two elite brigades of thousands of marines, likely “disabled” by casualties in failed attempts to storm Vuhledar.
“Russian forces are likely to be under increasing political pressure as the anniversary of the invasion approaches,” it said, predicting that regardless of the situation on the ground, Moscow could claim to have captured Bakhmut. “If Russia’s spring offensive fails, tensions within the Russian leadership are likely to increase.”
In a sign of such a contradiction, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Putin ally whose Wagner private army sent thousands of prison-conscripted criminals into the battle for Bakhmut, accused unidentified Russian officials of sabotaging his troops by withholding guns.
In Vuhledar, constant explosions shook the ruins. A pensioner emerged from the basement where she lives with her dog and led a Reuters journalist through the rubble of her apartment above where a grenade had blasted through the wall.
She said she was saved when the room was hit because a refrigerator fell on her. A neighbor’s daughter found her and dragged her out.
“Uncanny isn’t the right word. It’s terrifying,” she said.
(Reporting by Reuters reporters worldwide; writing by Peter Graff, Arshad Mohammed and Simon Lewis; editing by Frank Jack Daniel, Alison Williams and Jonathan Oatis)