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Biden makes an unannounced trip to Kyiv and offers more support to Ukraine

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

President Joe Biden made an unannounced and audacious visit to Ukraine's capital on Monday to mark almost a year since Russia's invasion. NPR's Joanna Kakissis was with Biden and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy during that surprise visit, and she's with us on the line now. Hi, Joanna.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So tell us about this visit. What did President Biden and President Zelenskyy do?

KAKISSIS: So the two men met at the presidential palace, which is this beautiful, ornate building with chandeliers. It's a building the public can't get anywhere near to. It's under very strict security. The neighborhood has been locked down since the beginning of the war. Biden wore a dark blue suit with a blue and yellow tie, the colors of Ukraine. Zelenskyy wore his signature army green sweatsuit. But, you know, there was also news. President Biden announced half a billion dollars in additional aid to Ukraine. And he promised more sanctions on Russia, with details to be announced in the coming days. The visit was largely symbolic. It comes almost a year after Russia's full-scale invasion of Ukraine. Biden seemed to revel in the fact that Ukraine and Kyiv have defied the odds by surviving and that Ukraine's Western allies have stuck together to help Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Putin thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided. As you know, Mr. President - I said to you in the beginning - he's counting on us not sticking together. He thought he could outlast us. I don't think he's thinking that right now.

KAKISSIS: And, Leila, the two men also walked around St. Michael's Cathedral. And while they were inside, an air raid siren rang out, and it's a sign that the city, as calm as it seems most of the time, is still a target in this war.

FADEL: Yeah. What's the significance of the U.S. president showing up in Ukraine now?

KAKISSIS: So the takeaway is like - the biggest thing is a symbolic show of support, as I mentioned, and especially as the year anniversary approaches. The U.S. has made the biggest contribution to Ukraine's ability to fight back against Russia. And by most measures, this seems to have worked. This time one year ago, people thought Kyiv would fall in a matter of days, just as I mentioned earlier. Now it's safe enough for President Biden to visit.

FADEL: Wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: One year later, Kyiv stands, and Ukraine stands. Democracy stands. The Americans stand with you, and the world stands with you.

KAKISSIS: And, you know, Leila, lots of foreign leaders have visited Ukraine, but Biden had not, and so this is very symbolic and a huge deal for Ukraine.

FADEL: Did anyone expect the visit?

KAKISSIS: So the White House kept a very, very tight lid on Biden's visit here. The president traveled with just one reporter and photographer and just a few officials, rather than his usual pool of reporters. But there was clearly something going on this morning. When I left my house at 7 a.m. to wait for President Biden and President Zelenskyy, I saw police and police barricades everywhere on nearly every corner. I was even stopped trying to get a cup of coffee from a kiosk. They're like, what are you doing here? I heard Ukrainians wondering who the heck is in town? Is it some foreign dignitary? 'Cause, you know, they didn't think it was going to be Biden because the White House had said no.

So Zelenskyy did hint a few days ago that he was going to see his good friend Biden, and as a master communicator, he knew how significant a visit from Biden would look to Ukrainians. Here he is speaking through an interpreter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) This is really the most important visit of the whole history of Ukraine-U.S. relationship and this most difficult period for Ukraine, when Ukraine is fighting for our own liberty, for the liberties of the world.

KAKISSIS: So President Biden has now left, and he's headed to Poland. After this, he gives a big speech in Warsaw tomorrow.

FADEL: NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv. Thank you.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome, Leila. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.