May 29, 2024

On-the-Record Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on President Biden’s Trip to Ukraine

On-the-Record Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on President Biden’s Trip to Ukraine

Via Teleconference

7:42 A.M. EST

MS. WATSON:  Good morning, everyone.  Thanks for joining our call on short notice.  This is Adrienne Watson with the NSC.

To kick things off, we just want to go over the ground rules really quickly.  This call is on the record.  The contents of the call are embargoed until the call ends.  To ask a question, just raise your hand.

Our speakers today are White House Communications Director Kate Bedingfield, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, and Principal Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer. 

With that, that I’ll turn it over to Kate.

MS. BEDINGFIELD:  Great.  Thanks, Adrienne.  Hi, everyone.  Thanks for jumping on, on short notice.  So I just wanted to do a little table set at the top here, and then I’ll turn it over to Jake and Jon for some additional points.

But, you know, so this trip today was a bold and strong move on President Biden’s part in the face of extreme difficulty, the extreme difficulty of making this trip as President of the United States.  It was logistically complicated and difficult, and it sends an incredibly powerful message that President Biden has faith in the Ukrainian people and is unwavering in his commitment to stand by them.

You know, a visit from a U.S. President to an active warzone like this is historic and unprecedented and, as I say, required a great deal of careful planning.

Unlike previous visits from Presidents to warzones, like Iraq and Afghanistan, the U.S. obviously does not have a military presence on the ground in Ukraine, which made a visit from a sitting President all the more challenging.

But this was a risk that Joe Biden wanted to take.  It’s important to him to show up, even when it’s hard, and he directed his team to make it happen, no matter how challenging the logistics.  He wanted to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with President Zelenskyy and remind the world, as we approach the one-year anniversary of the invasion, that Kyiv still stands and the United States will not be deterred from standing with Ukraine.  And he wanted to demonstrate the strength of his commitment to his strategy of holding the West together in a united front against Putin.

So it was bold, it was risky, and it should leave no doubt in anyone’s mind that Joe Biden is a leader who takes commitment seriously, and the U.S. is committed to continuing to support Ukraine for as long as it takes.

So with that, I’m going to turn it over to Jake Sullivan for some additional thoughts.

MR. SULLIVAN:  Thanks, Kate.  And hi, everybody.  And I hope I’m able to stay on the call for as long as I can, given access to cell service.

Let me just start by reiterating something Kate said, which is that this was a historic visit, unprecedented in modern times, to have the President of the United States visit the capital of a country at war where the United States military does not control the critical infrastructure.

And that required a security, operational, and logistical effort from professionals across the U.S. government to take what was an inherently risky undertaking and make it a manageable level of risk.

But, of course, there was still risk and is still risk in an endeavor like this.  And President Biden felt that it was important to make this trip because of the critical juncture that we find ourselves at as we approach the one-year anniversary of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

And what he wanted to do in Kyiv was to send a clear, unmistakable message of enduring American support for Ukraine; a clear, unmistakable message of the unity of the West and (inaudible) international community in standing behind Ukraine and standing up to Russian aggression; and also to be able to stand there next to President Zelenskyy in a free Kyiv to not just tell but to show the world, through a powerful demonstration, that Ukraine is successfully resisting Russian aggression and Russia is suffering strategic failure in Ukraine.

And as I said, though, the impending one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion really presented a crucial moment to do this.  One year ago this week, as the President said in his remarks in Kyiv, he spoke with President Zelenskyy as Russian forces were moving across the border, and President Zelenskyy said to him, “I’m not sure when we’re going to be able to speak again.”

So, one year later, the two men were face-to-face standing together in Kyiv, in a free and independent city, in a free and independent country.  And President Biden made clear in his remarks that there will be difficult times ahead, that a portion of Ukraine is under Russian occupation, that Russia continues to brutalize civilian populations across the country.

And so this was not a celebration but an affirmation of commitment of the resilience of the Ukrainian people, of the courage and bravery they’ve shown, and also an affirmation of the fact that the United States and our allies and partners have mobilized unprecedented levels of military, economic, and humanitarian support to provide the Ukrainian people with the tools that they’ve needed to defend their country, their sovereignty, their territorial integrity, and their independence.

In Kyiv, President Biden had the opportunity to meet the President and the First Lady, and then to sit in an extended session with President Zelenskyy to talk about all aspects of the ongoing war.  They spent time talking about the coming months, in terms of the battlefield, and what Ukraine will need in terms of capabilities to be able to succeed on the battlefield.

They talked about Ukraine’s needs in terms of energy, infrastructure, economic support, humanitarian needs.  And they also talked about the political side of this, including the upcoming U.N. General Assembly session on Ukraine, as well as Ukraine’s Peace Formula and Ukraine’s efforts to rally international support for a just and sustainable and durable peace built on the principles of the U.N. Charter, chief among them sovereignty and territorial integrity.

President Biden also had the chance to get briefed by a number of members of President Zelenskyy’s team and, you know, to have a detailed discussion of the types of steps that are going to be required in the weeks and months ahead from the United States and from our international partners in the G7 and NATO and elsewhere to ensure Ukraine has what it needs to sustain the level of effort going forward that we have seen over the course of the past year, and then some.

And President Biden also had the opportunity to pay his respects to the fallen, to those who have given their lives and paid the ultimate sacrifice in service of defending Ukraine.  He also had the chance to stand, as I said, next to President Zelenskyy and send a clear message that the United States will be with Ukraine for as long as it takes and the United States will continue to hold the international community and, in particular, this large and diverse coalition of countries together that has been supporting Ukraine for these past many months.

Finally, President Biden really reinforced a point that he will make again when he speaks in Warsaw tomorrow, which is that President Putin thought that Ukraine would cower and that the West would be divided, indeed that the West would be weak.  And he got the opposite of that across the board.

And this visit today was really an effort, again, as I said before, to show and not just tell that we will continue to stand up and stand strong and that we will do so, as I said, for as long as it takes.

So with that, let me — let me turn it over to Jon, and we’d be happy to take your questions.

MR. FINER:  Thanks, Jake.  Jake and Kate really said it all, but I’ll just make a few quick additional points.

They each talked about some of the unusual and maybe unprecedented aspects of this visit, but I’ll mention a couple of others, which is — which are: In addition to, obviously, lack of military footprint in Ukraine, the United States also has a very light embassy footprint compared to the massive operations in Afghanistan and Iraq during wartime visits by Presidents to those places.

And the traveling party accompanying the President was extremely small, as well, consisting basically of a handful of his closest aides, small medical team, photographer, and the security package.

So this entire operation, which was meticulously planned — and I’ll say a bit more about that in a second — was done just at much smaller scale than previous such visits by Presidents to these places, just given the constraints of operating in Kyiv and in the rest of Ukraine during conflict.

In terms of the planning, again, this visit was meticulously planned over a period of months, involving several offices in the White House — of course, the Chief of Staff’s office, the NSC, and White House Military Office — as well as a small number of colleagues from the Pentagon, the Secret Service, and of course, the intelligence community, which offered threat assessments on the visit.

Only a handful of people in each of these buildings was involved in the planning for operational security.  The President was fully briefed on each stage of the plan and any potential contingencies, and then made the final “go” or “no go” decision after a huddle in the Oval Office and by phone with some key members of his national security cabinet on Friday.

Obviously, this was all worked very closely between the White House and the highest levels of the Ukrainian government, who have become quite adept at hosting high-level visitors, although not one quite like this, and with our embassy in Kyiv, which, again, is small but highly capable, playing a key role as an intermediary.

And with that, I’ll turn it back to Adrienne.

MS. WATSON:  Thanks, Jon.  We have a couple of minutes for questions.  First question, Nancy Cordes with CBS.  Your line should be unmuted.

Q    Sorry, I had to unmute manually.  Okay, so my question is — thank you so much for doing this.  I’m wondering if you gave the Russians any kind of heads up that the President was going to be in Kyiv.  And if not, what was your level of concern about the fact that they would try to act in some way while you were there, either with aggression in Kyiv or elsewhere in the country?  Were you operating under the assumption, if you didn’t give them a heads up, that they knew that you were there?

MR. SULLIVAN:  Nancy, it’s Jake.  We did notify the Russians that President Biden would be traveling to Kyiv.  We did so some hours before his departure for de-confliction purposes.

And because of the sensitive nature of those communications, I won’t get into how they responded or what the precise nature of our message was, but I can confirm that we provided that notification.

MS. WATSON:  Thanks, Nancy.  Next question to Aamer with the AP.  Aamer, your line is unmuted.

Q    Thank you.  On the logistical aspect, could you confirm if — how — offer a little bit more detail on how the President and the package got there?  Was there trains or helicopters?  Or what was used to get there?

And then, secondly, substantively on Ukraine’s future needs, were ATACMS and F-16s or fighter jets discussed?  And was there any resolution on Zelenskyy’s desire to get those?  Thank you.

MS. BEDINGFIELD:  So, on the logistics, just quickly, I’ll say I anticipate that we’ll have more detail and that the print pooler, who was traveling with the President, will have more detail in the coming days.

But given that we’re allowing the trip to play out and finish out, we are holding back on some of those trans- — modes of — mode of transportation details and other specific logistical details until the trip is fully complete. 

So I would anticipate that we will have more color for you on that in the coming days, when it’s safe to do so, Aamer.

MR. SULLIVAN:  Aamer, it’s Jake.  The two presidents had a detailed discussion of the battlefield situation, of Ukraine’s objectives, of the military support and assistance we’ve already provided, and of capabilities going forward.

I’m not going to get into the specifics of those because we’re not announcing new capabilities today.  But what I will say is that there was a good discussion on the subject.  I think the two presidents both laid out their perspectives on a number of different capabilities that have been thrown around in the press, both recently and over the course of several months.  And I will leave it at that.

MS. WATSON:  And then one more question to Jeremy Diamond with CNN.  Jeremy, you should be unmuted.

Q    Hey, thanks so much for doing this.  I’m wondering if you can tell us a little bit more about the deliberations about getting the President to Kyiv.  Was Secret Service and the Pentagon — were they all on board with the plan for the President to go to Kyiv?  Or did the President have to overrule security officials in any way?  Was there a consideration of going to somewhere closer to the border, like Lviv, for example?  If you could get into that.

And then, Jake, I’m just wondering if you can paint a picture for us a little bit about what it was like being on the plane with the President for this very secretive trip and also what type of plane was used to get the President out of Washington.

MR. SULLIVAN:  I’ll take the second one first.  So as Kate said, we’ll hold off on going into real detail on the various elements of the trip and modalities and modes of transport and the like until, basically, we get the green light from the security folks to be able to share all of that.  We will share it, but we just want to make sure that we do so once, you know, we feel that it’s operationally safe to do so. 

I can say that, coming over, the President was very focused on making sure that he made the most of his time on the ground, which he knew was going to be limited.  So he was quite focused on how he was going to approach his conversation with President Zelenskyy and, in part, how the two of them were really going to look out over the course of 2023 and try to come to a common understanding of what the objectives are, where Ukraine is trying to get and how the United States can most effectively support them alongside our allies and partners in getting to where it wants to get.

He was excited about making the trip.  I think he felt it was really important to stand up next to President Zelenskyy and speak the way that he did today and convey the messages that you heard from him and that, you know, I’ve just put in some context.

So, frankly, the trip from Washington was a trip filled with real anticipation, that this was an important moment and that the President was rising to the moment and felt he had an important mission to undertake, and he was eager to do it.

But he wanted to do it, characteristically, by delving into the details, by knowing the specifics of — by being sure that he was going to make the most of every moment.

And, you know, what I will say is that, on the question of deliberations, the President proceeded with the confidence that his security team was able to bring risk to a manageable level, and that was what ultimately led him to make the call to go. 

And I am not going to get into the specifics of who said what to him in the Oval, particularly on things as sensitive as his security.  I will just say that he got a full presentation of a very good and very effective operational security plan.  He heard that presentation.  He was satisfied that the risk was manageable.  And he ultimately made the determination (inaudible).

MS. WATSON:  All right.  Thank you so much to everybody for joining the call this morning.  I know that there are more questions.  You have our contact info for follow-up.  And then we will get in touch as soon as possible with more information as well.  The embargo on the call is lifted now.  Thank you very much.

8:01 A.M. EST

Official news published at https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2023/02/20/on-the-record-press-call-by-senior-administration-officials-on-president-bidens-trip-to-ukraine/