February 20, 2023 - Russia-Ukraine news

By Tara Subramaniam, Rob Picheta, Leinz Vales, Eve Brennan, Ed Upright, Mike Hayes, Elise Hammond and Maureen Chowdhury, CNN

Updated 12:24 a.m. ET, February 21, 2023
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8:55 a.m. ET, February 20, 2023

Pro-Russian military bloggers criticize Moscow over Biden visit to Kyiv

From CNN's Olga Voitovych in Kyv and Vasco Cotovio in London

US President Joe Biden meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Olena Zelenska at Mariinsky Palace during an unannounced visit in Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 20.
US President Joe Biden meets with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and Olena Zelenska at Mariinsky Palace during an unannounced visit in Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 20. (Evan Vucci/Reuters)

Pro-Russian military bloggers and journalists have criticized the Kremlin for not being able to prevent US President Joe Biden from visiting the Ukrainian capital Kyiv.

Russian army veteran and former Federal Security Service (FSB) officer Igor Girkin said Biden could be taken all the way to Bakhmut and nothing would happen to him. 

“Wouldn't be surprised if the grandfather (he is not good for anything but simple provocations anyway) is brought to Bakhmut as well... AND NOTHING WILL HAPPEN TO HIM,” Girkin noted, ironically. 

Girkin has been critical of the Kremlin and the Russian Ministry of Defense for what he considers a “soft” approach toward Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. 

Russian Journalist Sergey Mardan struck a stronger tone, calling Biden’s visit a “Demonstrative humiliation of Russa.”

“Biden in Kiev (Russian spelling). Demonstrative humiliation of Russia,” Russian journalist Sergey Mardan wrote on his telegram channel. “Tales of miraculous hypersonics may be left for children. Just like spells about the holy war we are waging with the entire West.” 

“I guess there are lunch breaks in a holy war,” he added. 

A Telegram account managed by the Russian army and naval service members, Zapiski michmana Ptichkina, noted ironically that Biden had reached Kyiv before Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Almost a year after the beginning of the Special military operation, we are waiting in the Russian city of Kiev for the president of the Russian Federation, but not for the [President of the] United States."

There were others who were less critical.

Russia Military correspondent Yuri Kotenok claimed the air raid siren that rang out while Zelensky and Biden exited St. Michael's Cathedral was a “sham,” while Boris Rozhin from the Center for Military-Political Journalism said Biden only visited because he was given assurances no one would shoot at him. 

“It is worth recalling that US presidents visited their puppets in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. We know how it ended for the United States,” Rozhin added. 

8:24 a.m. ET, February 20, 2023

Biden made final decision to travel to Kyiv after Oval Office huddle on Friday

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

US President Joe Biden only decided on Friday to go ahead with a high-stakes, high-risk visit to Kyiv after huddling with top members of his national security team in the Oval Office.

A few hours before he departed, the United States informed Russia of the plans to visit the Ukrainian capital for "deconfliction purposes," according to Biden's national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

The Friday session in the Oval Office was the culmination of months of work by a tiny handful of Biden's top aides to plan the trip around the anniversary of the start of the war.

The planning included the chief of staff's office, the National Security Council and the White House Military Office, with input from a small number of officials at the US Secret Service, the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community, according to deputy national security adviser Jon Finer.

Biden was regularly briefed on the plans for the trip, including threat assessments, as the visit came together. 

Discussions between the White House and the "highest levels of the Ukrainian government" helped bring the trip over the finish line.

"He was satisfied the risk was manageable," Sullivan said.

"This was risk that Joe Biden wanted to take," said communications director Kate Bedingfield. "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."
8:52 a.m. ET, February 20, 2023

Kyiv mayor says Biden's visit is "symbolic" but Ukraine still needs modern weapons

US President Joe Biden's surprise visit to Ukraine on Monday was an "important" and "symbolic" visit, Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko told CNN's Poppy Harlow on Monday.

“It’s a risky trip, it’s a tough decision, but it’s very important and it has symbolism... it shows the whole world that the United States supports Ukraine," he said.

"It gives us much more energy to fight if we feel our friends behind us, it’s a very important message," said the mayor.

Biden announced an additional half-billion dollars of assistance during his trip, including more ammunition and howitzers but it did not include anything new such as longer range missiles or fighter jets.

Ukrainian soldiers … have been fighting already (for) one year against one of strongest army in the world: the Russian army,” said Klitschko.

He added that Ukrainian soldiers have already shown the world their “will and spirit,” but this is not enough.

“It's very important (to have) modern weapons... to be honest we depend (on the) help of our partners,” Klitschko said.

7:34 a.m. ET, February 20, 2023

"That really impressed me": Ukrainians react to Biden's surprise visit to Kyiv

From CNN's Dennis Lapin in Kyiv and Vasco Cotovio in London

Residents of Kyiv welcomed US President Joe Biden’s visit to Ukraine's capital, saying his presence in the country is meaningful.

“That really impressed me. He's good, I wasn't expecting his visit. I'm sure his visit means a lot,” 40-year-old Yuliya Ivanova said.

“Biden will be able to look at the situation in Ukraine from the inside, he will be able to talk to a lot of representatives of our government. He will look and see how difficult it is for us. I think we will be able to count on more US help.”

Tetyana Yevtushenko in Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 20.
Tetyana Yevtushenko in Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 20. (Dennis Lapin/CNN)

Tetyana Yevtushenko, a 30-year-old doctor, also said Ukrainians were grateful for the President’s visit. “We hope it will give us support," she said.

“It's just something unbelievable that at a time like this the President of the United States is coming to Kyiv,” 48-year-old Ukrainian service-member Andrei Ketov added. “I think this visit will bring us 'carrots,' something good, we are having a very hard time right now.”

Andrei Ketov in Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 20.
Andrei Ketov in Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 20. (Dennis Lapin/CNN)

“We need weapons and finances. We don't have our own. And the Russians have a lot of everything,” he added.

Student Vitaly Dmyterchuk, 19, described the visit as “a very memorable day.”

“We argued among ourselves whether Biden would come or not. I didn't believe he was coming," he said. "This is a huge support for us, we know that in America we have a lot of support and help."

Vitaly Dmyterchuk, right, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 20.
Vitaly Dmyterchuk, right, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 20. (Dennis Lapin/CNN)

“And so there is a great flow of weapons and humanitarian aid ... But there hasn't been such a large-scale war since World War II. And sometimes that aid is not enough. I know how soldiers on the front line suffer.”

Ilya Zelenko, a 20-year-old student, added: “I was very happy when I found out that Biden came, we expect even more support. Now we see a coalition around Ukraine, we want to see it strengthened, and (that) we (are) given even more weapons.” 

7:26 a.m. ET, February 20, 2023

"Not only did Kyiv not fall, Kyiv is bustling": In the capital almost a year after Russia's invasion

Students from Ukraine’s northeastern city of Kharkiv had traveled to Kyiv on Monday for a memorial day commemorating those who lost their lives in the 2014 Maidan Revolution, CNN's Clarissa Ward told This Morning’s Poppy Harlow and Sara Sidner.

The students were looking at the wreaths placed at a wall outside the city's St. Michael's Church where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and US counterpart Joe Biden paid their respects just moments before.

The students were saying how excited they were that Biden had visited the country, but hope this follows with military support, Ward reported.

Ward is in Kyiv for the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, on February 24. Then there were concerns that the capital would fall to Russian forces in days, if not weeks.

Almost one year later, Ward said: “Not only did Kyiv not fall, Kyiv is bustling, Kyiv is buzzing.”

“Let me tell you now Poppy, you can’t get a seat in a restaurant without a reservation here,” she added.

Ward added that, although this may not be indicative of what the rest of the country looks like, it is nevertheless "extraordinary" to witness how the capital has come to embody the country’s "defiance and resilience" in the face of Russian attacks. 

8:13 a.m. ET, February 20, 2023

Biden pays tribute to Ukraine's Zelensky in guestbook message

From CNN’s Vasco Cotovio

U.S. President Joe Biden signs the guest book during a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Ukrainian presidential palace on February 20, in Kyiv, Ukraine.
U.S. President Joe Biden signs the guest book during a meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky at the Ukrainian presidential palace on February 20, in Kyiv, Ukraine. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office/Getty Images)

President Joe Biden paid tribute to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s “courage and leadership” in a message written on the guestbook at Mariinsky Palace, the official residence of the President of Ukraine.

"I am honored to be welcomed again in Kyiv to stand in solidarity and friendship with the freedom loving people of Ukraine Mr President,” Biden wrote, according to a picture taken by Vice Prime Minister for the Restoration of Ukraine Oleksandr Kubrakov.

“Please accept my deepest respect for your courage and leadership. Slava Ukraini! (Glory to Ukraine). Joe Biden."

7:14 a.m. ET, February 20, 2023

Biden leaves Kyiv after memorable trip

President Joe Biden has now departed Ukraine's capital, according to reporters traveling with him, concluding a historic visit.

He arrived around 8 a.m. local time (1 a.m. ET) and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, before walking around central Kyiv and pledging the US' continued support for Ukraine.

6:46 a.m. ET, February 20, 2023

Zelensky says Biden's visit leaves Ukraine "closer to victory"

From CNN's Vasco Cotovio

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said negotiations between his and US President Joe Biden’s teams in Kyiv were a major boost to his country.

“This conversation brings us closer to victory,” Zelensky said, speaking alongside Biden on Monday.

The results of this visit will surely be seen, and will surely have repercussions on the battlefield in liberating our territories,” he added.

The Ukrainian leader also called Biden's surprise visit the most important in the “history of the Ukraine-US relationship.”

“Ukrainians remember the focus, attention, the attitude that President Biden and the US have given to Ukraine,” Zelensky added.

“I thank you for this level of US-Ukraine cooperation,” he said.

Zelensky said he had discussed the supply of more advanced Western weapons to Ukraine, and cited the recent decision by the US to send Abrams tanks to the country as another defining moment.  

“The decision of the US on Abrams tanks has already presented a foundation for establishing a tank coalition and is of historic importance,” he said. “We’ve also talked about long-range weapons and the weapons that may still be supplied to Ukraine – even though have not been supplied before.”

6:30 a.m. ET, February 20, 2023

Rumors swirled around Kyiv before Biden's historic visit was announced

From CNN's Ivana Kottasová in Kyiv

Police officers stand next to Mykhailivska Square in central Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 20.
Police officers stand next to Mykhailivska Square in central Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 20. (Vladyslav Musiienko/Reuters)

As traffic stood still in Kyiv on Monday morning, rumors were flying.

The talk of the town: a high-profile visitor is on the way. Nobody knew for sure who the VIP might be, but security preparations suggested it was a top-level visit; perhaps the highest level of all.

Multiple streets in the city center were shut down by police and the military presence was unusually high early on Monday, even for the capital city of a war-torn country.

The roads around St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery in the heart of Kyiv were cleared overnight and sealed off early in the morning, causing traffic jams in the surrounding streets.

The plaza outside the church has become a popular spot for foreign dignitaries visiting the capital. Destroyed Russian tanks are on display there, next to a statue that’s been wrapped in sandbags to protect if from explosions.

Guests at the hotel overlooking the square were told photographing and filming was off the limits for the morning. They were warned internet connection and cellphone signal may be disrupted.

By now, the city is used to high-profile visitors, with a string of political leaders traveling there in recent months. But even so, the level of security — and excitement — in Kyiv were a clear indication that something significant was planned.

Then, at around noon local time, it was announced: US President Joe Biden was in the country.

He joined Ukrainian counterpart Volodymyr Zelensky on a walkabout in Kyiv just as air raid sirens sounded across the city. Biden had arrived a few hours before, after completing a secret flight under cover of darkness.