Visits to war zones are nothing unusual for US presidents. Donald Trump went to Iraq and the Bagram Airbase in Afghanistan when tensions were at a height. Barack Obama visited Iraq and Afghanistan to pep up American fighters during frenzied war conditions. George Bush called on American troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. As early as in 1864, Abraham Lincoln visited the Fort Stevens battleground during the Civil War. https://www.militarytimes.com/news/your- military/2023/02/21/in-photos-united-states-presidents- visiting-war-zones/
However, when the 80-year-old president Joe Biden made his eighth visit to war-torn Ukraine on 20 February, four days ahead of the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion, he earned the distinction as the first American commander-in-chief to visit a war zone with no American military presence. This makes Mr Biden’s surprise visit to Kyiv, and his walk with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky on its shelled streets, not historic and unprecedented alone, strategic too.
Perilous But Strategically Promising
Past presidents had visited embattled nations where America had a military presence, as in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam. Ukraine has no US military presence whatsoever. Why, American diplomatic presence too is skeletal in Ukraine. Plus, Mr Biden’s trip to Kyiv was riskier than any American presidential visit to a war zone before. The live-wire Ukraine war theatre is under constant surveillance and attack by Russian aircrafts.
Yet, Mr Biden embarked on this perilous Kyiv visit. Despite being aware of the risks, Mr Biden’s aides had planned his visit in absolute secrecy, but after elaborate homework by the National Security Council, the state department and the Pentagon military office. More than anything else, Mr Biden’s Kyiv visit demonstrates America’s unwavering support and re-affirmed commitment to protect Ukraine’s ‘democracy, sovereignty and territorial integrity.’ In this symbolic sense, Mr Biden’s Kyiv visit was strategic for both America and Ukraine. https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements- releases/2023/02/20/on-the-record-press-call-by-senior- administration-officials-on-president-bidens-trip-to-ukraine/
Sending the Right Message
True, the visit intends to send a strong message that America will not budge an inch, even if the Russian push comes to shove. However, there is more to this story. Moscow was informed of Mr Biden’s Kyiv visit only a few hours before his departure, for ‘deconfliction’ purposes, and later a Russian MiG-31 came from Belarus. As alert air-raid sirens blared across Ukraine soon after, the surround-sound environment ended up hardening Mr Biden’s determination and the American resolve to stand by Ukraine and its people.
Equally determined were Mr Biden’s National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and his spunky team. They were busy building up the necessary panoply of protective operations to ensure Mr Biden’s Kyiv visit was within the ‘manageable level of risk’ and went on without hiccups as planned. Essentially, the American logistical support for the visit was admirable. Not surprising, the successful visit has sent the right message to Russia and its ruler.https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/us-alerted-russia-bidens- surprise-trip-ukraine-hours/story?id=97331313
Kudos for the Diplomatic Coup
The message is to warn Moscow, mere four days before the first anniversary of the Ukraine war, that America is prepared to take any risk to stand with Ukraine for protecting its independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity. Viewed through this strategic prism, Mr Biden’s Kyiv visit is a diplomatic coup which deserves full marks. Mr Biden and his team deserves kudos for this wartime presidential diplomacy of the highest order, well executed, though cloaked in secrecy and subterfuge.
To begin with, Mr Biden embarked on an Air Force C-32 in the Andrews Air Force Base in the American mid-Atlantic state of Maryland. He arrived to board a train in the Polish border station of Przemysl Glowny for a 10-hour overnight ride through Ukraine. Later, his security-detailed carriages took him streaming into the Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi station, where he was received by Bridget Brink, the American ambassador to Ukraine. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2023/2/21/plane- motorcade-train-how-joe-biden-got-to-kyiv-in-secret
A Strategic Moment in the War
When Mr Brink received Mr Biden, the president was wearing a tie with stripes in blue and yellow, colours of the Ukrainian flag. The Kyiv visit was symbolic and significant for other reasons as well. While Mr Biden was in Kyiv, his state department declared an additional $500m military aid to Ukraine, which covers artillery ammunition, anti-armour systems and air-surveillance radars. Plus, $10m in emergency aid for energy infrastructure and a promise of more sanctions “against elites and companies trying to evade sanctions and backfill Russia’s war machine.” https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2023/02/20/uk raine-russia-war-live-updates/11303271002/
Mr Biden’s Kyiv visit has thus assured Ukraine it got everything, except the F-16 fighter jets and longer-range missiles. Confirming Mr Biden’s Ukraine commitment, the European Union too declared its readiness to slap on Russia additional sanctions before the war’s one-year anniversary. Seen against this spread of support for Ukraine, Mr Biden’s Kyiv visit was indeed a strategic moment in the unending Ukraine war.
More Strategic Symbolisms
Mr Biden’s Kyiv visit had many more strategic symbolisms. The American president paid floral tributes at The Wall of Remembrance of the Fallen for Ukraine aka The Wall of Remembrance. This is a memorial for over 4,500 martyred soldiers, located near the historic St Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral. With his mournful presence at the sombre Wall, Mr Biden sent out a potent message: no longer Russia needs to be feared. https://www.ukrinform.net/rubric-ato/3672560-zelensky- biden-lay-flowers-at-wall-of-remembrance-of-the-fallen-for- ukraine.html
After the stopover at the Wall, Mr Biden was welcomed by Mr Zelensky and Olena Zelenska, the current First Lady of Ukraine, in the Mariyinsky Palace, their official residence. Again, an American president in the presidential palace in Kyiv sends a powerful message to the Russian dictator: the Ukraine-supporting America is a strong counterbalance to Russia and its expansionist ambitions.
Subtle Messages to Home Rivals
The Kyiv visit will also help Mr Biden send subtle messages to his political rivals in his home turf. Republicans have been demanding of late an end to ‘blank cheques,’ an insinuation of military aid to Ukraine. Meanwhile, research polls have found popular American support for military aid to Ukraine waning, down from 60 per cent last year to 48 per cent. Mr Biden is sure to leverage his triumphant Kyiv visit to silence his detractors. https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2022/11/17/republ icans-dont-have-to-write-a-blank-check-for-ukraine-00069160
However, the biggest beneficiary of Mr Biden’s Kyiv visit is Ukraine. Besides the reassurance, the visit consolidates America’s commitment to Ukraine. Plus, the visit has won for the Ukrainians Mr Biden’s emotional loyalty. Said Mr Biden in Kyiv: “Putin thought he could outlast us. I don’t think he’s thinking that right now.” Better for him, he doesn’t.
The American president continued with utmost conviction: “We are not leaving. One year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands.” https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing- room/speeches-remarks/2023/02/20/remarks-by-president- biden-and-president-zelenskyy-of-ukraine-in-joint-statement/ If Mr Biden’s words prove real for a whole lot of future Ukrainian generations, his surprise visit to Kyiv will have pleasant surprises for the entire democratic universe too.