Tuesday Feb 21, 2023
WASHINGTON: US President Joe Biden's surprise visit on Monday morning to wartime Kyiv began in the dead of night at a military airport hangar outside Washington.
At 4:00 am (0900 GMT) on Sunday — unbeknown to the world's media, the Washington political establishment or American voters — the 80-year-old Democrat boarded an Air Force Boeing 757, known as a C-32.
The plane, a smaller version of the one US 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.
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 US president is perhaps the most constantly scrutinised 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 compromise 13 journalists from radio, TV, photo and written press organisations, 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.
They flew for about seven hours from Washington to the US military base in Ramstein, Germany, for refuelling. Here too, the window shades stayed down and they did not leave the plane.
The next flight was to Poland, landing at Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport. This may be a Polish airport, but since the Ukraine war, it has also become an international hub for the US-led effort to arm the Ukrainians, funnelling billions of dollars of weaponry and ammunition.
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 travelling with Biden often go in motorcades, but something was very different about this one: no sirens or anything else to announce that the US president was headed to Przemysl Glowny — the Polish train station near the Ukrainian 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 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 US president — journeying into an active war zone where, unlike presidential visits to Afghanistan or Iraq, US troops are not the ones 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.