President Joe Biden sent Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to Kyiv on Sunday for a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, continuing to ignore months of personal invites from the president himself.
Zelensky has repeatedly requested that Biden visit the capital city to show solidarity with the country as it struggles through its eighth year of war and colonization by neighboring Russia. While Russia first invaded Ukraine in 2014, illegally seizing its Crimea region and fueling pro-Russian proxy forces in the eastern Donbas region, it greatly escalated hostilities this year, announcing a full-scale invasion targeting Kyiv and other key urban centers in February.
Zelensky most recently expressed a wish for Biden to visit his country last week, to which White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki said Biden had no plans to meet Zelensky in person.
The State Department confirmed Blinken and Austin’s presence in Kyiv on Monday, after they had departed.
“Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III visited Kyiv, Ukraine yesterday to demonstrate the United States’ unwavering commitment to Ukraine and the Ukrainian people in their struggle against Russian aggression,” spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.
The two reportedly arrived in the capital with the news that Washington would restore an ambassador to its Kyiv outpost and “obligate more than $713 million in Foreign Military Financing (FMF) for Ukraine and 15 other Allied and partner nations in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkan region.”
“Both Secretary Blinken and Secretary Austin shared their admiration for the everyday heroism exhibited by the Ukrainian people,” Price added.
The office of the president of Ukraine offered a much more detailed look at the meeting that Austin and Blinken attended, including several photos of the two engaging with Zelensky and other top Ukrainian government leaders. The office quoted Zelensky as urging the American government to impose more sanctions on Russia to limit the assets it has available to invest in the war.
“We understand what the next steps on this track should be. And we count on the support of our partners,” Zelensky reportedly said, offering a detailed sanctions plan to the two officials.
Zelensky also reportedly expressed thanks for “the unprecedented assistance of the United States to Ukraine.”
“I would like to thank President Biden personally and on behalf of the entire Ukrainian people for his leadership in supporting Ukraine, for his personal clear position,” the office quoted the president as saying of the absent Biden. “To thank all the American people, as well as the Congress for their bicameral and bipartisan support. We see it. We feel it.”
Following the exchange, Austin called it “very productive” and “very engaging.” Both Austin and Blinken admitted that the meeting was a bureaucratic one and that the two did not actually see much of the aftermath of the Russian assault on Kyiv in person.
“In terms of what we saw, we took a train into Kyiv from southwestern Poland, so didn’t see a lot except looking out the train windows on our way in,” Blinken said. “And in Kyiv itself, we went right to the presidential palace. We spent about three hours with President Zelensky, with his senior team. That was the entire focus of our visit.”
“We were focused on the conduct of the meeting and engaging the senior leadership, so we didn’t get a chance to do any walkabouts or engage civilians or citizens on the street,” Austin said.
Zelensky has repeatedly asked Biden to visit Kyiv, long before Russian leader Vladimir Putin announced an escalation of the near-decade-old war in February. Last week, in an appearance on CNN, Zelensky answered positively that he wanted Biden to see Kyiv for himself and predicted that Biden would eventually show.
“I think he will [come to Ukraine]. But it’s his decision, of course, and about the safety situation, it depends. But I think he’s the leader of the United States, and that’s why he should come here to see,” Zelensky told the left-wing broadcaster.
Shortly after Zelensky’s remarks, Psaki said Biden’s plans to not visit Ukraine had “not changed.”
“That has not changed – what our focus continues to be on is providing Ukraine, the Ukrainian government, Ukrainian leaders, a historic amount of security assistance,” Psaki confirmed.
Zelensky invited Biden to Kyiv in mid-February, as well – shortly before the full-scale Russian invasion began, explicitly as an attempt to prevent escalation by Moscow.
“I am convinced that your arrival in Kyiv in the coming days, which are crucial for stabilizing the situation, will be a powerful signal and contribute to de-escalation,” Zelensky said to Biden at the time. Biden ignored the overture.
Zelensky, who has been president of Ukraine since 2019, has been inviting Biden to Ukraine for almost a year. Last May, Zelensky said at a press conference with Blinken that he had extended an invite to Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris to the country.
“We believe that this year, which is so symbolic for Ukraine, the United States will definitely be with us and will visit us on official and unofficial visits,” Zelensky said at the time.
Shortly after this invite, Biden lifted sanctions imposed by predecessor Donald Trump on the Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which would have given Russia a critical stranglehold on western Europe’s natural gas policy. An irate Zelensky warned at the time that lifting the sanctions would result in a full-scale invasion of Ukraine and demanded that Biden meet with him in person before any meeting with Putin.
“It still seems to me that Nord Stream 2 … we understand that this is a weapon, a real weapon, and I speak openly about it. A weapon in the hands of the Russian Federation, and it is not very understandable, I feel, and definitely not expected, that the bullets to this weapon can possibly be provided by such a great country as the United States,” Zelensky fumed in June.
The White House offered to invite Zelensky to Washington in July, and then by the end of the summer, but ultimately only agreed for him to come to America in September. Zelensky met with Biden in the White House, where Biden insisted on holding a “climate dialogue” while Zelensky attempted to discuss the threat of an impending full-scale war by Russia.
Biden held a conversation with Putin again in December in which, according to the Kremlin, “there were jokes and exchange of pleasantries.” Less than three months later, Putin bombed Kyiv.