Risk, Reward, and Statecraft
President Biden's dangerous gambit seems to have succeeded.
In yesterday morning’s post on the Russia-Ukraine war at the one year mark, I expressed concern as to whether the propaganda* value of President Biden’s visit to Kyiv was worth the risk to his life going into a war zone entailed. We now have more information on both fronts.
WaPo (“Cloak-and-dagger moves allow Biden to sneak into Ukraine’s war zone“):
As President Biden stepped out of a golden-domed church during his unannounced, high-stakes trip to Kyiv — a city under regular bombardment from Russian forces — an air-raid siren abruptly went off, signaling that a Russian military jet armed with missiles had taken off from its home territory.
The plane ultimately did not pose a threat to Biden’s location; U.S. officials had tried to reduce the risks by taking the extraordinary step of informing Moscow of Biden’s planned visit ahead of time. But the shrill alarm was a reminder of the peril of an American president visiting a war-besieged capital in a region where military groups and mercenaries are not known for following the rules.
“There was still risk — and is still risk — in an endeavor like this,” said Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, speaking by cellphone as he accompanied the president out of Ukraine on Monday. Among the striking features of the whirlwind visit was Biden’s use of a train that had been set aside for him to get in and out of Ukraine, a necessity given the dangers of traversing Ukrainian airspace.
Biden told his aides months ago he wanted to travel to Ukraine, but he only made the final decision on Friday after a last-minute huddle in the Oval Office and phone call with his national security cabinet, according to Jon Finer, Biden’s principal deputy national security adviser.
That decision set in motion a stealthy plan that involved a close hold on information, with just two journalists summoned that afternoon and told of the trip so they could prepare to be on it. They were told to watch for an email with the subject line “Arrival instructions for the golf tourney” that would provide further instructions.
Saturday evening appeared routine for the president, perhaps by design. He was slated to visit Poland to mark the Ukraine war’s first anniversary, but that trip was not scheduled to start until Monday. Biden and first lady Jill Biden attended Saturday night Mass at Georgetown University, visited an exhibit at the National Museum of American History and dined on rigatoni at the Red Hen, a trendy D.C. restaurant known for its pasta.
Just hours later, in the predawn darkness Sunday, Biden and his team boarded a small government aircraft and departed for the war zone. Only three White House officials accompanied the president: Sullivan; Jen O’Malley Dillon, the deputy chief of staff; and Annie Tomasini, director of Oval Office operations and one of Biden’s closest personal aides.
A small medical staff also came along, as did security officers and the official White House photographer — a bare-bones operation compared to the president’s usual entourage.
Rather than taking the large aircraft presidents usually use for their official travel, Biden boarded an Air Force C-32, which is generally utilized to fly into smaller airports. Before takeoff, the plane sat in the dark, its shades drawn, away from the tarmac where it is usually parked for presidential travel.
When the plane lifted off at 4:15 a.m., it kicked off a nearly 22-hour journey involving planes, motorcades and trains that would deliver Biden nearly 5,000 miles away in Kyiv for his meeting with President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The trip exposed the commander in chief to security risks in a war zone where no U.S. troops are stationed. It represented a gamble that a dramatic gesture could help galvanize American support for the war, provide a shot of energy to the global coalition opposing Russia and raise the morale of Ukrainians themselves.
Despite the dangers, Biden and his inner circle had decided that the powerful image of Biden embracing Zelensky in the Ukrainian homeland was worth it. “President Biden felt that it was important to make this trip, because of the critical juncture that we find ourselves at as we approach the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full scale invasion of Ukraine,” Sullivan said.
As the possibility of a visit gained momentum, U.S. and Ukrainian officials had kept in frequent contact to weigh the risks and strategize on how to mitigate them. “Obviously, this was all worked very closely between the White House and the highest levels of the Ukrainian government, who have become quite adept at hosting high level visitors — although not one quite like this,” Finer said.
After a refueling stop at Ramstein Air Base in Germany — where the plane’s shades were kept down during the hour-and-15-minute stop — Biden finally landed at Rzeszów-Jasionka Airport in Poland. His motorcade drove about an hour to the Ukrainian border, with the sirens off to avoid drawing attention.
Upon arriving at Poland’s Przemysl Glowny train station, Biden boarded a train that was under heavy security and had few onlookers. The eight-car train rumbled through the Polish and Ukrainian countryside for more than 10 hours, mostly in the dark with little visible outside beyond streetlights and shadows, with a few brief stops to pick up additional security personnel.
It was not the way a president usually travels, but Ukrainian airspace has been shut down since the outset of the war, making trains an essential source of weapons, food, equipment and supplies for nearly a year. The tracks and vehicles have come under fire from Russian forces, but they have been quickly repaired by Ukrainian crews. A love of trains is part of Biden’s public image — he commuted on Amtrak throughout his 36 years in the U.S. Senate — but this rail trip was unlike any other.
On a typical trip, the stops often feature Ukrainian husbands and fathers saying long farewells to their families as they head off to combat. Closer to the border, Ukrainian soldiers scrutinize passports and overturn sleeper beds looking for deserters and stowaways. But with foreign leaders visiting during the war to show support, Ukrainian officials have become adept at transforming the trains for VIP use.
U.S. officials said the lack of American troops in Ukraine made this operation especially tricky. “Unlike previous visits from presidents to war zones like Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. obviously does not have a military presence on the ground in Ukraine, which made a visit from a sitting president all the more challenging,” said Kate Bedingfield, the White House communications director. “But this was a risk that Joe Biden wanted to take.”
Biden arrived at the Kyiv-Pasazhyrsky station in the Ukrainian capital at about 8 a.m. local time, as the city buzzed with rumors of a high-level visitor and numerous streets were blocked off by security. Biden, wearing a blue-and-yellow striped tie to showcase the colors of Ukraine’s flag, was greeted on arrival by Bridget Brink, the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
NYT (“Biden’s Surreal and Secretive Journey Into a War Zone“) adds:
In an audacious move meant to demonstrate American resolve to help Ukraine defeat the Russian forces that invaded a year ago this week, Mr. Biden traveled covertly to Kyiv to meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky and promise even more weapons for the country’s defenders. The visit produced an indelible image of the two presidents striding to a memorial for fallen soldiers in broad daylight even as an air-raid siren blared, a show of defiance of Moscow quickly beamed around the world.
“I thought it was critical that there not be any doubt, none whatsoever, about U.S. support for Ukraine in the war,” Mr. Biden said during his five hours on the ground in Kyiv before leaving again. He was speaking, in effect, not just to President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia but to fellow Americans back home doubting his decision to invest so deeply in Ukraine’s war. “It’s not just about freedom in Ukraine,” he said. “It’s about freedom of democracy at large.”
Never in Mr. Biden’s lifetime had a president ventured into a war zone that was not under the control of American forces, much less on a relatively slow-moving locomotive that would take nine and a half hours to reach its destination. During that time, he was potentially exposed to circumstances beyond the control of the hypervigilant security phalanx that normally seeks to shield a commander in chief from every conceivable physical danger and minimize his time outside a hardened shelter.
For much of the past year, in fact, most of the people around the president resisted any urge to go, on the assumption that it was too risky. But nearly a year after the Russian invasion, with Ukrainian troops faring far better than anyone expected at the start and other American and European leaders having made the trip, Mr. Biden and his team gambled that he could get in and out safely.
Since Abraham Lincoln rode to the front lines outside Washington to watch battles in Northern Virginia during the Civil War, no sitting president has gotten that close to combat. Franklin D. Roosevelt visited North Africa; Lyndon B. Johnson went to Vietnam; Bill Clinton toured the Balkans; George W. Bush and Barack Obama traveled to Iraq and Afghanistan; and Donald J. Trump went to Afghanistan.
But in all those cases, they went to countries or areas under control of American forces or after hostilities had eased. In this case, the United States military would not be present in Ukraine, nor would it control the airspace. American military planes were spotted hovering in eastern Poland near the border during the trip, but officials said they never entered Ukrainian airspace out of concern that it would be taken as the sort of direct American intervention that Mr. Biden has avoided.
During his five hours in the city, he met with Mr. Zelensky at Mariinsky Palace, joined him in laying a wreath at the Wall of Remembrance at St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery and stopped by the United States Embassy to meet with its staff.
Then he headed back to the same train station, departing at 1:10 p.m. On the long meandering train ride back to Poland, the senior official said the president issued a series of directions on military, economic and diplomatic areas to help Ukraine. He was seized with the meetings he had just had. Once again, he could not sleep much.
He arrived at the Przemyśl Główny station at 8:45 p.m. local time, and he headed back to the airport for a flight to Warsaw, where he will deliver a speech on Tuesday. His mind, aides said, remained on his last stop.
“Kyiv,” he had said before leaving, “has captured a part of my heart, I must say.”
So, the trip was in some ways simultaneously safer and much more dangerous than was my initial impression. I had assumed from the early reports that Biden had flown directly to Kyiv; that he spent hours both ways on a slow-moving train actually increased the risk considerably. At the same time, communicating the trip to leadership in Moscow likely mitigated the risk somewhat; a direct attack on the President would have turned a proxy war into a direct one. But, again, the whole country is an active war zone. There was a non-zero risk of the train being hit just during the normal course of events, with the poor battery commander ordering the strike completely oblivious to Biden’s presence.
At the same time, the propaganda value looks to have been more profound than it seemed to me at first. Yes, it was a show of defiance that bolstered morale among Ukrainians and signaled in a profound way to both the Ukrainians and our NATO allies the steadfastness of American commitment to the war. But its signaling value in Moscow may well have been more than I had expected.
The eminent security studies scholar Eliot Cohen declares “Biden Just Destroyed Putin’s Last Hope.”
The long-range missiles matter. So do the super-accurate artillery shells, the surface-to-air missiles, and the winter weather gear; the training in the English countryside or the muddy Grafenwöhr maneuver grounds; and the intelligence provided from the eyes in space and the ears on airplanes that circle outside the battle zone.
President Joe Biden’s visit to Kyiv matters just as much as any of these.
Other heads of government preceded him, earning deserved credit. But it is an altogether different thing when the president of the United States—who is, indeed, the leader of the Free World—shows up. His words mattered. He pledged “our unwavering and unflagging commitment to Ukraine’s democracy, sovereignty, and territorial integrity.” And even more important, that the United States will stand with Ukraine “as long as it takes.”
Symbols matter: a Kennedy or a Reagan at the Berlin Wall, a Churchill with a cigar and a bowler, for that matter a green-clad Zelensky growling, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” Simply by taking the hazardous trip to Kyiv, Biden made a strategic move of cardinal importance.
While the president clearly intended to bolster the confidence of Ukraine, and the commitment of ambivalent Europeans and neo-isolationist Americans, his real audiences lay elsewhere, as his remarks about Western strength indicated. Russia has cycled through a series of theories of victory in Ukraine—that Kyiv’s leaders would flee, that Ukraine’s population would not fight, that its army would be crumpled up by a sudden blitz or by grinding assaults. It has been reduced to one last hope: that Vladimir Putin’s will is stronger than Joe Biden’s. And Biden just said, by deed as well as word, “Oh no it’s not.”
This is a gut punch to Russia’s leader. The Russians received word of the trip, we are informed—and presumably the threat, stated or implied, that they would get a violent and overwhelming response if they attempted to interfere with it. For a leader obsessed with strength, like Putin, that is a blow. His own people will quietly or openly ask, “Why could we not prevent this?” And the answer, unstated, will have to be, “Because we were afraid.”
The visual contrast between an American president with his signature aviator sunglasses walking in sunny downtown Kyiv with the pugnacious and eloquent president of Ukraine and a Russian president who has yet to visit the war zone is also striking. Not to mention the difference between an American president who mingles with others, shaking hands, hugging and slapping backs, and a Russian president who keeps his subordinates at a physical distance, and who has to be surrounded by flunkies and actors when he supposedly meets with normal people. No belligerent words from the Kremlin will change those visual images, which will be seen in Russia as well as around the world.
This was not a stunt, but rather an act of statesmanship. Biden’s visit comes at a moment when much hangs in the balance. The Chinese have begun making noises about arming Russia, according to the United States government, which would be a very great change in this war. The Western allies, including the democracies of Asia, have begun mobilizing their military industries. The Russian offensives that were supposed to produce large gains timed to the anniversary of the invasion have instead carpeted the Donbas with the bodies of thousands of men who learned too late that, as one French World War I general put it, “fire kills.” And meanwhile, Ukraine is building up a force to use in its own counteroffensive.
The Russia-Ukraine war is not merely a humanitarian calamity, a monstrous collection of crimes against humanity, a gross violation of solemn agreements and international law. It is also a watershed, in which much will be determined about the future of the international system. It could lead to a very dark place, not different in kind from that of the 1930s and 1940s, if the dictators get their way. But if the liberal democracies unite and display the resolve, enterprise, and military capacity that they have shown before, that outcome can still be avoided.
To that end, nothing matters more than American leadership, the recovery of the prestige and weight that have been wasted or diffused over the past few decades. We are not near the conclusion of this war, and there is much of a tangible nature that needs to be done to bring the conflict closer to its end. Words and gestures are critical, but only when accompanied by deeds. But for now, by taking a bold step, President Biden has made the future for Ukraine, for Europe, and for the cause of freedom under the law a great deal brighter.
Granting that Cohen can be a bit overenthusiastic on the power of hawkishness in foreign policy, his point about the contrast between Biden’s boldness and Putin’s bunkering is a good one.
Daily Beast (“Putin’s Cronies: We Should Have Blown Up Biden in Kyiv“) takes us into the bizarre world of Russian television. If it’s indication, Biden’s thumbing his nose at the danger has struck a chord in Moscow.
In recent days, pundits and experts on Russian state television discussed the anticipated visit of U.S. President Joe Biden to Poland, confidently asserting that he would never dare travel to war-torn Ukraine. The news that Biden spent Presidents Day in Kyiv, alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, hit the Kremlin’s mouthpieces like a ton of bricks.
Visibly unsettled, 60 Minutes host Olga Skabeeva announced, “The White House has confirmed that Biden really is in the Ukrainian capital. He really came to the Ukrainian capital. Zelensky just published the pictures… There he is, Biden, in the flesh.” The program then played footage of the smiling American president walking alongside Zelensky and shaking hands with Ukrainian officials. The clip was set to dramatic music more suitable for a horror movie.
The reactions in the studio matched the sinister music. Military expert Evgeny Buzhinsky surmised, “Clearly, the West is headed towards an escalation… I think we should also cautiously start to walk down a path of escalation… The West has many vulnerabilities.” Buzhinsky floated his ideas for attacking Americans in retaliation for their alleged involvement in blowing up the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, proposing that Russia attack American pipelines at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean, the North Sea, and the Norwegian Sea.
Unimpressed, Skabeeva interrupted, “At the same time, Americans seemingly assume that we aren’t planning to respond to anything, since they’re sending even their Biden to Ukraine.” She questioned the wisdom of Russia going along with the trip and purportedly agreeing not to strike Kyiv during the presidential visit: “If we gave these security guarantees, then what for?” Buzhinsky replied, “Well, you know, perhaps we could have whacked Biden, but it would have been too much.” Skabeeva retorted, “So it’s too much to whack Biden, but it’s OK to threaten Putin and it’s also fine to blow up the Nord Stream? It’s not about aggression, it’s about the logic: where is it?”
Buzhinsky didn’t object to the idea of killing the American president, as long as his replacement was more in line with Russia’s interests. He wasn’t comfortable with the thought of Vice President Kamala Harris at the helm, claiming that, unlike Biden, Harris would be completely unrestrained in her response to Russia and would present an even worse option for the Kremlin. As opposed to Skabeeva’s suggestion of assassinating Biden, he regretted that the U.S. president wasn’t at least terrorized during his trip. Buzhinsky daydreamed that if Biden traveled to Ukraine by helicopter, he would have been escorted by Russian planes all the way to Kyiv, leaving him with an indelible impression.
Irritated, Skabeeva pointed out, “Following your logic, if we’re not starting this confrontation because the replacement will be even worse, then why did we even start this at all? What if everything will only get worse?” She claimed that Biden is “promising to destroy and dismember the Russian Federation.” Buzhinsky stressed that the American president was not the first world leader to visit Kyiv, and Russia should have started by taking out former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson: “If we wanted to do this, we should have started much sooner.”
Buzhinsky tried to temper Skabeeva’s expectations by noting, “You’re constantly going to extremes, proposing we start with maximum measures: ‘Let’s waste Biden.’ There are also fans of proposing nuclear strikes against Washington, erasing Paris and London from the face of the earth. I’m not in agreement with this.”
Pointing to the photograph of Biden hugging Zelensky, Skabeeva bitterly interrupted, “I think this is the photo of the year… both of them are crying and are endlessly happy to see each other! As far as me resorting to extremes, I’m not for extreme measures. What I’m saying is that Russia’s special operation in Ukraine has been going on for a year and is far from reaching its goals. There is a huge number of deaths. The United States of America and the entire so-called collective West are acting as though we’re incapable of some kind of a retaliatory strike. We keep demonstrating our peacefulness.”
Buzhinsky suggested that Russia should start its retaliatory actions against the United States by striking Elon Musk’s Starlink internet service, launching a series of cyberattacks, and pulling out of the grain deal by refusing to renew it, since it is on the verge of expiration.
Dmitriy Abzalov, president of the Center for Strategic Communications, grimly noted that Russia’s military humiliations were to blame for the current state of affairs: “A year went by. We’re paying for what happened last year during the fall… We’ve created this trampoline through our own mistakes… We’re anticipating that something will change, something will happen in the near future and it will be a very important factor. We are spending a lot on this, economically and politically… We should realize that there is a limited trust, because there already were attempts to change something. It’s very important that something starts happening. Otherwise, a long-term confrontation lasting more than a year is a totally different conflict.”
Pointing to a screen showing additional footage from Biden’s joint press conference with Zelensky, Skabeeva dryly noted, “This is the finest hour of the Ukrainian president.”
Political analyst Sergei Markov, who was reportedly a former advisor to Putin, was likewise unable to lighten up the mood. With a heavy sigh, Markov said, “I look at the sunny city of Kyiv… after junta usurped the power in 2014, I regret that we’ve been prohibited from visiting it. We hope that thanks to the Army of Russia, we’ll be able to come to our glorious city… to enjoy all the beauty that is currently being enjoyed by the leader of the occupation force, President of the United States Joe Biden… This is a huge victory for Biden. He largely cemented his own ability to run for another term in the next election.”
I’m generally skeptical of symbolic gestures of this sort, often quoting the late George Carlin’s admonition that “symbols are for the symbol-minded” (which, of course, plays as “simple-minded” delivered in a stand-up routine). Even those that land well at the moment—George W. Bush landing on an aircraft carrier in his flight suit with a “Mission Accomplished” banner in the backdrop comes to mind—can backfire.
How much any of this will matter in the longer term remains to be seen, of course. In the early going, though, the gamble seems to have paid off: Biden got in and out of the country safely and a big message was sent.
*I was out of pocket all day after the early morning post but, as one reader rightly noted in the comments, I use the term in its neutral historical sense, a form of persuasion used to influence people’s attitudes, beliefs, and behavior, rather than as a perjorative. Indeed, as regular readers surely know, I heartily support the cause Biden is seeking to advance.