Dhe White House Press Corps takes its job very seriously. As a representative of the fourth estate, the pool reporter appointed for a day describes every step taken by POTUS, FLOTUS or VPOTUS – i.e. the “President of the United States”, the First Lady or the Vice President – in detail in short dispatches that about the Press Office of the White House immediately to all journalists accredited there. But on this channel it was quiet early Monday morning. It was Ukrainian news portals that, shortly before noon in Kiev, were the first to announce that Joe Biden had just been spotted with Volodymyr Zelenskyy.
Ukrainian journalists were forewarned because security in the capital appeared to be unprecedented. According to the reports from Kiev, for no other of the many high-ranking visitors so far have so many streets been closed off for pedestrians.
According to the New York Times, the handful of American journalists who had traveled with them had to hand in their mobile phones very early in the American morning before the start of the trip. At a little after four on Sunday morning, Biden flew to Poland with his security adviser Jake Sullivan and an unusually small number of other employees on Air Force One. He had probably already traveled east from there on the train when the White House circulated the president’s agenda later on Sunday. It stated that Biden was in Washington and wanted to leave for his announced visit to Poland on Tuesday night.
When Biden sat with Zelenskyj, a MiG rose in Belarus
Whether Biden completed all or just part of his journey by train remained uncertain at first; it took ten hours to read in the New York Times. The Secret Service’s misgivings about such a trip are easy to guess. They were confirmed, so to speak, when Biden took to the streets with Zelenskyj in Kiev and the air sirens began to wail. A Russian MiG fighter plane had apparently taken off in Belarus. This is everyday life for the people of Kiev – but not for the 80-year-old American commander-in-chief and his guards.
Parallels were drawn in the American press to the visits of President George W. Bush to Iraq in 2003 and Barack Obama to Afghanistan in 2010, which were also blacked out with military precision. The difference from the perspective of the Pentagon and Secret Service: the American military had been the dominant force in both war zones; American military or security forces are not present in significant numbers on Ukrainian soil.
The New York Times report spoke of American fighter jets in Polish airspace on the border with Ukraine; but they did not enter Ukrainian airspace. It was worth mentioning to the newspaper that Biden had eaten with his wife Jill in a restaurant on Saturday evening as a farewell (or as another smokescreen?), which only happens very rarely.
The large entourage was not allowed to come this time
It goes without saying that trips to war zones are not publicly announced. On the other hand, it is extremely unusual for the White House to set the wrong tracks with false information. There had been speculation for many weeks about a possible appearance by Biden in Kiev, but government spokesmen and employees have repeatedly assured that there are “no plans” for it.
In truth, the planning had apparently started more than a month ago. According to a report by “Rolling Stone”, the president issued the motto internally several weeks ago that a public gesture of solidarity should be organized for him. The magazine cites a senior government official and writes that several options have been worked out.
Among other things, a meeting between Biden and Zelenskyj in a Polish-Ukrainian border town was discussed. First Lady Jill Biden, who met Zelenskyy’s wife in May 2022 in the small town of Uzhgorod near the Slovakian border, had done something similar. Another suggestion was a meeting in the western Ukrainian city of Lemberg (Lviv).
According to Rolling Stone, the concerns of the Secret Service and other security agencies have been significant: first, because of the unpredictable dangers amid constant Russian airstrikes, and second, because of the impossibility of taking the usual precautionary measures in Ukraine when the American president travels. A “small footprint” was necessary precisely for security reasons – the opposite of what is generally used to characterize presidential trips.
But Biden chose Kiev. It may sound “presumptuous,” the American commander-in-chief told Zelenskyy in the Kiev presidential palace on Monday morning, “but from the very first day of the attack I thought it was important for the President of the United States to come here.” Biden added, “I thought it was crucial that there was not the slightest doubt about United States support for Ukraine in the war.”
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