Biden’s Kyiv Visit Lifts Spirits of War-Weary Ukrainians

KYIV, Ukraine — When Russian forces invaded Ukraine a year ago and sent millions fleeing Kyiv and other cities for safety, traffic jams in the capital spoke to the chaos and uncertainty gripping the nation.

But on Monday, when the streets of the capital were snarled to the point of immobility, the traffic was a testament of sorts to the determination of Ukrainians who have returned to Kyiv to resume their lives, swelling its population to a level greater than before the war.

And the clogged roads seemed a minor inconvenience given the cause: President Biden was in town.

“Officially, today was the most pleasant many-hours traffic jam on Kyiv streets in all the history of independence,” said Serhiy Koshman, a 41-year-old business consultant. After so much hardship, so much trauma, he said, the visit of the American president was a moment to reflect on the past and be hopeful for the future.

Mr. Koshman looked at a headline on his phone from a year ago predicting that Kyiv could fall in a matter of days. Then he pulled up a picture from Monday, showing Mr. Biden and his own president, Volodymyr Zelensky, embracing in the heart of the city.

“I even cried of happiness for it,” he said. “It’s euphoric, something psychological.”

Mr. Biden’s tour through Kyiv, a closely held secret until he arrived, started at the gilded halls of the Mariinskyi Palace, the official residence of Mr. Zelensky. Then he traveled to St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, and finally to the United States Embassy before departing by train for Poland.

With each stop, the shroud of secrecy surrounding his visit began to fall, and the excitement of Ukrainians grew.

Since Russia invaded a year ago this week, Kyiv has played host to scores of prime ministers, presidents and world leaders. Hollywood stars have come to offer their support and global icons from the world of music have staged clandestine concerts deep in the capital’s underground.

The State of the War

  • Portending a Global Rift: Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken said that China is strongly considering giving military aid to Russia, a move that would transform the war into a struggle involving three superpowers.
  • Western Support: Nearly one year into the war, American and European leaders pledged to remain steadfast in their support for Ukraine amid worries about how long their resolve will last.
  • Harris’s Comments: Vice President Kamala Harris declared that the United States had formally concluded that Russia had committed “crimes against humanity” in its invasion of Ukraine.
  • A Russian Mole in Germany?: A director at Germany’s spy service was arrested on suspicion of passing intelligence to Russia. German officials and allies worry just how deep the problem goes.

But Mr. Biden’s visit on Monday was unlike any that had come before.

Central Kyiv was locked down, the streets closed to cars and hastily erected barriers blocking pedestrians. By early morning, social media was rife with rumors about a presidential visit, and Ukrainian officials hinted that a historic event was underway.

By the time Mr. Biden stood outside St. Michael’s with Mr. Zelensky, camera crews were positioned in the distance to capture the scene. Images of Mr. Biden and Mr. Zelensky strolling in the sunshine were soon playing on a loop across Ukrainian television channels.

Other world leaders have visited Kyiv, but Mr. Biden’s visit on Monday was unlike any that had come before.Credit…Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times

The shock and confusion in the weeks after Russia invaded faded long ago. Ukrainians, for the most part, have stopped being afraid of Moscow and have channeled their anger into a deep determination to carry on.

Many of the people now living in Kyiv are transplants from cities in the east and south occupied or destroyed by the Russias. New cafes continue to open, and they are invariably buzzing. After several months this winter when it seemed that the city could be plunged into darkness at any moment as Russian bombardments triggered rolling blackouts, this past weekend, for the first time, there was no need for power cuts in Kyiv.

But the daily threat of attack still looms.

As Mr. Biden and Mr. Zelensky paid tribute to fallen Ukrainian soldiers outside the monastery, an air-raid alarm sounded and scores of residents went to underground shelters.

In recent days, Ukrainian officials have stepped up their warnings that Moscow is likely to unleash large-scale aerial bombardment to coincide with the one-year anniversary of the war on Friday.

“Everything Russians have at hand will be used, because they have tried everything,” Yuriy Ihnat, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Air Force, said over the weekend. “The only thing they are capable of is to intimidate Ukraine and the world with some apocalypse weapon.”

In the metro station under Kyiv’s Independence Square, Viktoria Sulyma, 23, was taking shelter.

Viktoria Sulyma, left, applying makeup while sheltering with friends.Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

Ms. Sulyma had been preparing to shoot a dance video when the alarm sounded. She and her friends were cautious, but not frightened. Even as they waited for the all-clear signal, they applied makeup so that when they went back outside, they would be ready to dance.

Mr. Biden’s visit coincided with a solemn day in Ukraine. On Feb. 20, 2014, dozens of protesters were killed by snipers and police officers as the Kremlin-backed president at the time, Viktor F. Yanukovych, tried to cling to power.

Ukraine’s desire to break free of Russia’s yoke and assert its independence set in motion the chain of events that led to Russia’s unprovoked invasion a year ago and the largest land war in Europe since the end of World War II.

As Mr. Biden moved across the city, Independence Square was largely silent. Some women hung white paper doves outside a memorial chapel. Fresh flowers were placed by the names of those killed in the 2014 protest, and in the evening candles were lit in their honor.

A priest holding a service on Monday to honor those killed in the 2014 protests in Kyiv. Credit…Emile Ducke for The New York Times

Ukraine’s Ministry of Defense said that the American president’s visit — and its timing —  “sends a powerful message to our enemy: Tyranny will not defeat the  Free World!”

Ukrainian media and people on the streets echoed that feeling.

“Biden said in Kyiv that Putin’s ‘War of Conquest’ is Failing,” read a headline in Ukrainska Pravda.

Months of punishing missile bombardment have failed to break the nation’s resolve. And even as fighting raged across eastern and southern Ukraine, Mr. Biden’s pledge of more military assistance gave this war weary nation confidence.

Whatever Moscow may have planned in the coming days, months or years, Ukrainian residents and officials alike said the support of the United States meant brighter days lie ahead.

For months, St. Michael’s had been forced to keep its monuments in the dark to conserve power. As night fell on Monday and Mr. Biden made his way toward the Polish border, the lights came on to light up on the monastery.

“We, in fact, have survived the winter, which is coming to an end,” said Hanna Mailar, a deputy minister of defense. “It’s time to win.”

The two leaders at the Wall of Remembrance, which bears portraits of more than 4,500 soldiers who have died since Russia annexed Crimea in 2014 and first fomented a rebellion in eastern Ukraine.Credit…Daniel Berehulak/The New York Times

Carlotta Gall, Natalia Yermak and Oleksandr Chubko contributed reporting from Kyiv.

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