President Joseph Biden’s unexpected journey to war-torn Ukraine started early Monday morning at a military airfield hangar outside Washington.
The 80-year-old Democrat boarded an Air Force Boeing 757, known as a C-32, at 4:00 a.m. (0900 GMT) Sunday, unbeknownst to the world’s media, the Washington political system, or American voters.
The jet, a smaller version of the one used by US presidents on overseas travels, was parked far from where Biden would ordinarily embark. A striking detail: every window’s shade had been pulled down.
Fifteen minutes later, Biden, a tiny security team, a small medical team, close advisers, and two journalists sworn to secrecy boarded a plane bound for a conflict zone.
The US president is maybe the most scrutinised person on the globe.
Press members follow Biden everywhere he goes, whether to church or to international conferences. Every public statement he makes is taped, transcribed, and published.
The customary pool of reporters, which for overseas visits would consist of 13 journalists from radio, TV, picture, and written press agencies, was reduced to one photographer and one writer in this instance.
Sabrina Siddiqui of the Wall Street Journal revealed, after being granted permission to publish information by the White House, that she and the photographer were summoned to Joint Base Andrews outside Washington at 2:15 a.m.
Their phones were taken and would not be restored until Biden arrived in Kiev almost 24 hours later.
They travelled from Washington to the US military station in Ramstein, Germany, for refuelling, which took nearly seven hours. The window blinds remained down, and they did not depart the aircraft.
The next flight was to Poland, where it landed at Rzeszow-Jasionka Airport. While this is a Polish airport, it has also become an international centre for the US-led operation to equip Ukrainians, funnelling billions of euros in armament and ammunition.
‘Good to be back’
Siddiqui and the photographer, Associated Press photographer Evan Vucci, had not seen Biden until this moment. It didn’t alter when they arrived at the airport or when they joined a procession of vehicles.
Reporters travelling with Biden are used to riding in motorcades, but this one was different: there were no sirens or any announcements indicating the US president was on his way to Przemysl Glowny, a Polish railway station near the Ukrainian border.
They arrived at a railway station around 9:15 p.m. local time. The media were instructed to board while still not seeing Biden.
The train had around eight carriages and travelled a route that has transported countless amounts of assistance into Ukraine and untold thousands of Ukrainian citizens fleeing the opposite way. According to Siddiqui, the majority of them on board were “heavy security.”
Biden is a rail enthusiast.
He enjoys reminiscing about his time as a senator, travelling by train between Washington and his home in Delaware, and raising two young children after their mother died in a car accident.”Amtrak Joe” is one of his monikers.
This 10-hour excursion into Ukraine, however, was unlike any other done by a contemporary American president, since it took him into an active battle zone where, unlike presidential trips to Afghanistan or Iraq, US forces were not providing protection.
The train arrived in Kyiv as the sun rose.
Biden, who last visited Kiev as Vice President under Barack Obama, stepped off the plane at about 8:07 a.m.
“It’s fantastic to be back in Kyiv,” he said.