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The Economist: Why Joe Biden visited Kyiv

His commitment to Ukraine is the main reason the country is still fighting

US President Joe Biden (L) walks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (C) in front of St. Michael's Golden-Domed Cathedral during an unannounced visit, in Kyiv, on February 20, 2023. - US President Joe Biden promised increased arms deliveries for Ukraine during a surprise visit to Kyiv on February 20, 2023, in which he also vowed Washington's "unflagging commitment" in defending Ukraine's territorial integrity. (Photo by Evan Vucci / POOL / AFP) (Photo by EVAN VUCCI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)


Paying his first visit to wartime Kyiv on February 20th, President Joe Biden described it as a gesture to “reaffirm [US] commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” He announced the release of a further $500m tranche of military assistance, and his team conducted closed-door discussions about the current battlefield dynamics. But the main impact of the visit was symbolic, coming as it did just four days before the first anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24th. And it offered Mr Biden an opportunity to experience the war first hand, as he walked around central Kyiv amid the wailing of air raid sirens.

The visit had not been announced, but did not come as a complete surprise. For at least a fortnight rumours have swirled around Kyiv that the leader of the free world might extend a planned trip to Poland to Ukraine, too. Washington supplied hints in the run up to the trip, including, last week, confirmation from the State Department of a $10bn commitment to shoring up Ukraine’s finances. Only a small circle of insiders knew the details, and they were sworn to secrecy for fear the plan would be derailed.

ike other visiting foreign VIPs, Mr Biden took the train to Kyiv from the Polish border (travelling by air is far too dangerous), before transferring to a motorcade. He laid flowers at a memorial to Ukraine’s fallen soldiers near the gold-domed St Michael’s Cathedral, before being received by President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife Olena in their residence at Mariinsky Palace. The streets of central Kyiv were empty, locked down from the early hours in an unprecedented security operation.

Dmytro Kuleba, the foreign minister, who cancelled a trip to Brussels early in the morning of the visit, described Mr Biden’s presence as a “victory for the Ukrainian people” and a message to the “swamp” of Russia that it was no longer feared. The optics of the two presidents walking side-by-side in Kyiv certainly offered a strong counterbalance to those urging Ukraine to concede territory. Many in Kyiv have been concerned by the reports that China is seeking to broker a peace deal. “Ukraine now feels very secure,” says Mykola Davidyuk, a political analyst.

Mr Biden’s commitment to Ukraine is one of the main reasons the country is still fighting. Speaking in Kyiv, Mr Biden said Vladimir Putin had been surprised by the scale of Western unity. “He thought he could outlast us. I don’t think he’s thinking that right now.”

Mr Zelensky said he hoped that the results of his meeting with Mr Biden would “influence the battlefield” and bring victory closer. The Ukrainian president added that his country continues to experience a “difficult period”, taking serious losses as it defends its frontlines in the east, around the town of Bakhmut. But Ukraine is widely expected to begin an even bloodier phase of fighting in the spring, including a new counter-offensive. Its leaders have been pushing hard for longer-range missiles and F-16 fighter jets—something to which Mr Biden appears unsure about committing.

The Ukrainian hope is that the visit will have bound Mr Biden more emotionally to their cause. But it was also an opportunity for Ukrainians to show their appreciation of the American president. “Biden showed in the era of strongmen that a democratic leader can also be strong,” says Mr Davidyuk. “Without him, who knows where we’d be? Ukrainians understand that.”



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