President Joe Biden, right, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy talk during an unannounced visit in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023. Image Credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

President Joe Biden by all accounts was having a quiet weekend at the White House, joining his wife Jill Biden for dinner at a restaurant on a rare outing in Washington on Saturday.

But behind the scenes, officials at the White House and other agencies were planning intensively for Biden to make an unannounced trip to Kyiv to show solidarity with Ukraine days before the one-year anniversary since the beginning of the Russia-Ukraine conflict.

After months of planning, Biden on Friday decided to go ahead with the trip, according to the White House.

At 4:00 am (0900 GMT) 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.

US President Joe Biden leaves Air Force One as he arrives at Warsaw Chopin Airport, in Warsaw, Poland, February 20, 2023. Image Credit: Reuters

Secret until the last minute

A scaled-back news media presence went along with him: just one reporter and a photographer instead of his usual media pool.

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, revealled - 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 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. The plane was refueled and he flew on to Rzeszow in southeastern Poland. After a one-hour drive, he arrived in Przemysl, a city along the Poland-Ukraine border.

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.

President Joe Biden arrives for a surprise visit with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023, in Kyiv. Image Credit: Reuters

10-hour train ride

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."

President Joe Biden sits on a train as he goes over his speech marking the one-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine after a surprise visit with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023, in Kyiv. Image Credit: Reuters

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.

President Joe Biden, right, and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy hug as they say goodbye at the Memorial Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine in Russian-Ukrainian War with photos of killed soldiers, in Kyiv, Ukraine, Monday, Feb. 20, 2023. Image Credit: Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP

'Good to be back'

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.

US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, who accompanied the president, said US officials did notify Russian officials that Biden would be traveling to Kyiv. "We did so some hours before his departure for deconfliction purposes," he told reporters on a conference call, declining to provide more details.

Sullivan said the trip had "required a security, operational, and logistical effort from professionals across the U.S. government to take what was an inherently risky undertaking and make it a manageable level of risk."

After his visit, Biden got back on the train for the trip to Przemysl. After arriving there, he made his way to Warsaw.