Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2013, Joe Biden, the US president, has been the most powerful Western leader to visit Kyiv.
Many were surprised by the show of solidarity for President Volodymyr Zilenskyy, and his people. The White House stated last week that the US president did not intend to visit Ukraine.
We will never know if that statement was true at that time, but we are starting to learn more about how the historic and secretive visit of the president was conducted.
This is how the high security operation turned out.
Journalists are told to wait for ‘arrival instructions’
On Friday, two journalists were invited to meet with Kate Bedingfield, White House communications director.
They were informed by President Biden that he would be traveling to Kyiv, and that they would be the only journalists allowed to travel with him.
They would create the “travel pool”, meaning that they would have to share information with other news organizations.
The pool reporters were asked to keep the trip secret and to watch out for an email with instructions to depart Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland on Sunday morning.
It would be subject: “Arrival instructions to the golf tourney.”
The email arrived on Saturday at 3:00 pm eastern US time (or 8pm UK time).
Reporters were instructed to report to Andrews Base between 2am-2:15am Eastern US Time (7am-7.15am UK Time) on the next morning.
Departure at the air base
The base was notified that the pool journalists had arrived and their phones were taken. They were not returned to their phones until they arrived at the US Embassy in Kyiv 24 hours later.
Then, they boarded an Air Force C-32 which was often used for domestic travel to smaller airports.
The plane was parked in darkness next to a hangar, where the shades were drawn.
Air Force One left the Andrews base at 4.15am Eastern US Time (9.15am UK Time) on Sunday.
Biden arrives in Germany
Air Force One landed at Ramstein Air Base, Germany at 5.13pm (UK time: 4.13pm) Sunday under overcast skies. This was to replenish fuel after a seven-hour flight.
For the duration of its stay on the ground, it stayed with its shades down. This lasted approximately an hour and fifteen minutes.
The journalists aboard remained in the press room throughout the flight and did not see Mr Biden during Ramstein’s stop.
Air Force One flew at 6.29pm (UK time: 6.29pm) after the sun had set, and the sky was dark.
Arrival in Rzeszow
Air Force One touched down at Rzeszow–Jasionka Airport, southeastern Poland at 7.57 pm local time (8.57 pm UK time) Sunday.
Upon Mr. Biden’s arrival, the airport was open.
Journalists didn’t see the US president exit Air Force One until he was quickly led towards an SUV.
At 8.12pm local (UK time), the president’s motorcade started rolling on an approximately one-hour drive on an eastbound highway.
One journalist from the pool counted at most 20 cars in the motorcade, which was a mixture of SUVs, minivans and suburbans. The sirens weren’t used to draw attention.
Biden boarded the train from Poland towards Ukraine
Biden’s motorcade reached the Przemysl-Glowny station around 9.15pm (UK time: 8.15pm).
The motorcade drove directly up to the train, which was mostly purple and had two large strips at its bottom. There were also large square windows that showed the shades in full view.
A few of the train cars had a yellow stripe in the middle. They were reminiscent of the trains used to bring refugees from Ukraine into Poland.
Mr. Biden was dropped right in front of the train car.
Pool journalists were taken to their train cars and placed in separate cabins with four bunkbed beds.
A security guard told one of the journalists that there were eight cars on the train, which included the engines.
A large security presence occupied most of the train.
A small group of passengers were waiting for a train on the other side of the tracks. They huddled together in conversation, occasionally looking over, but it was not clear if they could see any of the activity.
Przemysl Golowny was reached at 9.37 pm local time (or 8.37pm UK).
An agent aboard the train told one of the pool journalists that the train had crossed into Ukraine at approximately 10 p.m. local time on Sunday. However, this was not confirmed.
The journey was largely in darkness, so it was difficult to see beyond the shadows of buildings.
During the entire 10-hour trip, there was no interaction with White House staff or pool journalists. There were also no sightings of Mr Biden in his favorite mode of transportation.
A few stops were made along the route to get additional security. Although it was not always obvious why the stops were made, they were often brief and journalists were kept away from the crew.
Biden arrives in Kyiv
As President Biden’s train approached Kyiv, the sun was already rising.
One journalist aboard said that the view from the window consisted largely of graffiti walls, barren snow trees and a colorful assortment of brick homes – many in pastel colours –
The train stopped at the Kyiv–Pasazhyrsky Station at approximately 8am local (6am UK Time) Monday.
The platform was cleared, and Bridget Brink, the US ambassador to Ukraine, waited for Mr Biden and his staff, in cold outdoor conditions.
After getting off the train, the president said his first words: “It’s great to be back at Kyiv.”
Again, the motorcade was made up of minivans, SUVs and armoured cars. It rolled from the railway station to Mariinsky Palace, the official residence of President of Ukraine.
The motorcade passed Kyiv’s Independence Square on its way. This is where there were major demonstrations in 2013-2014.
The stops included a meeting at Mariinsky Palace with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, a walkabout at St. Michael’s Cathedral with Mr Zelenskyy, and a stop at Kyiv’s US Embassy.
Biden returns to Poland
Biden left Kyiv in the same train that he arrived in just before 11.10am UK Time (just before 1.10pm in Kyiv).
Shortly after 8 pm local time (7pm UK Time), the train crossed into Poland.
The train arrived at Przemysl-Glowny at 8.45 pm (7.45pm).