U.S. alerted Russia to Biden’s secret Ukraine visit ahead of time

Washington — The U.S. notified Russia of President Biden’s secret visit to Ukraine hours before his departure in an attempt to avoid sparking conflict when he was in Kyiv, national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters Monday.

The White House said the nature of the trip to an active warzone was unprecedented, given the lack of a U.S. military presence in Ukraine and the small U.S. diplomatic footprint in the capital. Mr. Biden and a small group of top U.S. officials were on the ground in Kyiv for about six hours Monday to mark the upcoming one-year mark of Russia’s war on Ukraine. It was the first time Mr. Biden visited since Russia’s invasion.

Sullivan said the White House alerted the Russians to the visit to prevent any potential for miscalculation during the sensitive stopover.

“We did notify the Russians that President Biden would be traveling to Kyiv,” Sullivan told CBS News chief White House correspondent Nancy Cordes. “We did so some hours before his departure for deconfliction purposes. And because of the sensitive nature of those communications, I won’t get into how they responded or what the precise nature of our message was, but I can confirm that we provided that notification.”

President Biden walks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Cathedral during an unannounced visit in Kyiv on Feb. 20, 2023. / Credit: EVAN VUCCI/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

The U.S. and Russia have for years maintained “deconfliction” lines to decrease the risk of a confrontation that could quickly spiral into a broader conflict. The U.S. European Command and the Russian Ministry of Defense established such a hotline in the weeks following last year’s invasion.

Kyiv came under withering assault in the beginning of the conflict as the Kremlin unsuccessfully tried to encircle the capital and quickly topple the government of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, aiming to bring a quick end to the war. After meeting seemingly unexpected stiff resistance, Russia refocused its war effort in eastern Ukraine and unleashed a merciless aerial assault with bombs, missiles and exploding drones targeting Kyiv and other cities — often including civilian infrastructure.

The U.S. pledged in December to deliver a Patriot missile defense system to Kyiv to help Ukraine shoot down the projectiles and began training Ukrainian troops on how to use the system last month.

Russia has not yet publicly responded to Mr. Biden’s visit to Kyiv. The trip was cloaked in secrecy, and details of the visit only emerged as Mr. Biden preparing to leave. The president had been scheduled to travel to Poland on Monday evening, and U.S. officials had publicly dismissed the idea that the president might stop over in Ukraine as a part of the trip.

A small group of officials from the White House, Secret Service and Pentagon had been planning the potential trip for months. But the president only made his final decision to travel on Friday, after all the risk assessments were set out for him, White House officials said Monday morning.

Those risks were made real during the visit, when an air-raid siren activated while Mr. Biden and Zelenskyy were walking together outside in Kyiv.

“It was risky, and it should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that Joe Biden is a leader who takes commitment seriously,” White House communications director Kate Bedingfield told reporters, adding this was a risk the president “wanted to take.”

Sullivan declined to give more details about the president’s travel logistics, such as what kind of plane or vehicle he took to get to Kyiv, until the White House gets the “green light” from U.S. security officials.

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