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FOCUS: Russia-Ukraine War

Why Hasn't Joe Biden Visited Ukraine?

U.S. President Joe Biden has been evasive when asked if he plans to follow European leaders by visiting Kyiv. However, such a move could have far-reaching consequences for Ukraine and the rest of the world.

Photo of President Biden saluting with a U.S. flag as backdrop

What message would a visit by the U.S. president to Kyiv send to Russia?

Cameron Manley

U.S. President Joe Biden has been unyielding in his response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: heavy sanctions on the Russian government and financial markets and strong words about Russian President Vladimir Putin, labeling him a “ butcher" and “war criminal”. The U.S. has also sent upwards of $54 billion in aid to Ukraine.

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This week, the war looms heavily over Biden’s trips to Germany and Spain for meetings with world leaders at the G7 and NATO summits.

Already on this side of the Atlantic, the staging would thus seem perfect for the U.S. president to reaffirm support for Ukraine by going to Kyiv, following in the footsteps of top European leaders, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and UN chief Antonio Guterres, who have paid recent visits to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.

And yet, save a surprise detour this week, it appears that Biden will in fact not be making the much anticipated trip to Kyiv. What's holding him back?

Russians say he's scared

By all accounts, Biden had plans to visit Ukraine, responding positively in April to President Volodymyr Zelensky's invitation to come and see the destruction“with his own eyes.”

However, when asked last week if he still plans to visit Ukraine, Biden evasively said that it depends on “many things regarding whether this will cause more difficulties for the Ukrainians, whether it will distract from what is happening.” When asked to clarify whether this meant that he would not visit Kyiv during his trip to Europe, he replied: “During this trip, it’s unlikely.” He stressed, though, that he spoke with Zelensky three to four times per week.

Russian news has pounced on Biden’s notable absence from Kyiv. On Thursday, Russian daily Kommersant ran the headline: “Not the time to head to Kyiv” and notes that this is not the first instance where Mr. Biden has had to make excuses for not visiting Ukraine.

Russian media sites have mocked Biden for his “fear” of visiting Kyiv.

In March, the U.S. president visited Poland and was closer than ever to the Ukrainian border. The fact that he never walked the streets of Kyiv, unlike British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, was explained by the U.S. president himself: He was "not allowed." The White House refused to clarify what or who was stopping him.

Other Russian media sites have also mocked Biden for his “fear” of visiting Kyiv, using tweets from U.S. citizens to substantiate calling the president a “puppet” or “coward.”

Over the course of several months, high-ranking officials from Washington have indeed visited Kyiv, most notably Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi and even First Lady Jill Biden, who made an unannounced visit at the start of May.
Photo of \u200bUkrainian President Zelensky on the phone with U.S. President Biden on June 15

Zelensky on the phone with Biden on June 15

Sarsenov Daniiar/Ukraine Preside/Planet Pix/ZUMA

Leaders of war and peace

Of course, when and if he were to visit, the appearance would likely be unannounced, for security reasons. Indeed, a visit from the U.S. president himself carries higher stakes than perhaps any other world leader. It's worth remembering that during the Guterres visit to Kyiv in late April, Russia launched a new round of missile attacks on the city that the United Nations chief said were an attempt to "humiliate" the UN.

Moreover, it may be no coincidence that the first air strikes on Kyiv in weeks have coincided with this current round of European summits, as Russia has continuously demonstrated its readiness to escalate.The U.S. sending its president to Ukrainian soil would no doubt raise the stakes further.

Back in March, Zelensky said that Biden, as the leader of the free world, is also the “leader of peace.” But of course these are war times, and the prospect of a visit to Kyiv begs the question of whether Biden wants to be seen as the leader of the war.

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