These are images that will go down in history: the leader of the free world walking through downtown Kiev with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and through the entrance portal of St. Michael's Monastery while air raid sirens wailed warning of Russian bombing raids.
What is a nightmare for the Secret Service tasked with protecting US President Joe Biden is also a powerful symbol of solidarity with Ukraine on the week that marks the anniversary of Russia's invasion of the country.
Biden and Zelenskyy then laid wreaths at the memorial for the soldiers who have died since Russia's first war against Ukraine in 2014. It was not lost on the Ukrainians that the US President wore a tie in the blue and yellow colors of the Ukrainian flag in honor of their country.
In terms of symbolism, Biden's trip is comparable to John F. Kennedy's visit to divided Berlin in 1963 - except that no rockets were fired on the city at the time. "It might be a bit presumptuous of me to say that, but I thought it was important that the President of the United States be here on the day of the attack," Biden told Zelenskyy (actually, it was the week of the attack, the actual day is Friday).
At his meeting with President Zelenskyy, Biden recalled his first telephone conversation with his counterpart after the war broke out. “Russian planes were in the air and tanks rolled over the border. And you told me you heard explosions in the background," Biden said. "I will never forget that. And the world was about to change.”
At the time, few believed that Ukraine would actually withstand the Russian onslaught. “A year later, Kiev is holding its ground. And Ukraine is holding up. Democracy is standing,” said Biden.
"When Putin began his invasion nearly a year ago, he thought Ukraine was weak and the West divided," Biden said in a statement released by the White House. "He thought he could last longer than us. But he was terribly wrong about that.” Putin's war of conquest is about to fail.
He came to Kiev "to reaffirm our unshakeable and unshakable commitment to Ukrainian democracy, sovereignty and territorial integrity," Biden said. Host Selenskyj thanked the US President. "Your visit is an extremely important sign of support for all Ukrainians."
But Biden's visit is also a clear gesture to Moscow. The US President arrived in the city, which continues to be the target of Russian missile and drone attacks, a day ahead of Russian President Vladimir Putin's scheduled speech to mark the anniversary of the start of the war.
Biden is signaling to Moscow that the West will continue to support Kyiv in its efforts to throw the Russian occupiers out of their country.
The US President therefore also had a new military aid package of half a billion dollars in his luggage, which is said to contain additional weapons such as artillery ammunition, Javelin missiles and howitzers. However, according to Zelenskyy, both of them also spoke "about long-range weapons and weapons that Ukraine will get in the future, which it hasn't gotten yet."
With his visit to Kiev, Biden stands in clear contrast to the Russian President in several respects. Putin hardly ever leaves his Kremlin bunker and in a year of war he didn't even dare to visit the Russian-occupied areas of Ukraine. He is as courageous as his military, which specializes in attacks against defenseless civilians.
Biden, on the other hand, was brave enough to travel to a city that still regularly comes under Russian fire, against the advice of the Secret Service and the Pentagon.
Alternatives are said to have initially been suggested to the president, such as a meeting with Selenskyj on the Polish-Ukrainian border or in Lviv, which is further away from the front in eastern Ukraine. For symbolic reasons, however, Biden then chose Kiev – the capital that Russia had tried in vain to capture in the first phase of the war.
More recently, US presidents had traveled to war zones only twice. In 2003, for example, George W. Bush flew to Iraq in the strictest secrecy. His successor Barack Obama then visited US troops in Iraq in 2014.
In both cases, however, the Americans had their own soldiers on the ground and, above all, absolute control over the airspace. Measured against this, Biden was more at risk because no US soldiers were able to secure his visit to Ukraine and Kiev currently has no sovereignty over its own airspace.
According to the New York Times, Biden and his wife Jill snuck off after dinner on Saturday and flew out of Washington in the early hours of Sunday morning. American security experts considered it too dangerous to fly to Kiev.
Therefore, according to US media reports, Biden took the train from the Polish border to Kiev, as many Western government officials have done before him. For an 80-year-old, the almost ten-hour journey must have been quite a strain. Biden is scheduled to travel back to Poland the same way, where he is expected to visit on Tuesday.
On Tuesday afternoon, Biden will then give a keynote speech at Warsaw Castle, which is expected to be about the anniversary of the Russian war. On the same day that Putin will deliver his own speech on the war.