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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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.

6:13 a.m. ET, February 20, 2023

In photos: Biden's surprise visit to Ukraine

From CNN Digital's Photo Team

US President Joe Biden made an unannounced trip to Kyiv early Monday for the first time since Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine almost a year ago.

Biden arrived in Kyiv at 8 a.m. local time (1:00 a.m. ET), according to reporters traveling with him inside the country, and was greeted by the US Ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink. His motorcade arrived at the Mariinsky Palace just after 8:30 a.m. local time. He was greeted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his wife, Olena Zelenska.

“Thank you for coming,” Zelensky said, shaking Biden’s hand.

The pictures below show Biden's meeting with Zelensky, which took place as air raid sirens could be heard ringing out while the two leaders walked around the city.

Here's a look:

US President Joe Biden, right, is greeted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) during a visit to Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 20.
US President Joe Biden, right, is greeted by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) during a visit to Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 20. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Biden walks next to Zelensky in front of St. Michaels Cathedral.
Biden walks next to Zelensky in front of St. Michaels Cathedral. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

The leaders walk together in the Ukrainian capital on Monday.
The leaders walk together in the Ukrainian capital on Monday. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

Biden poses with Ukrainian counterpart Zelensky and first lady Olena Zelenska at Mariinsky Palace during the unannounced visit on February 20.
Biden poses with Ukrainian counterpart Zelensky and first lady Olena Zelenska at Mariinsky Palace during the unannounced visit on February 20. (Evan Vucci/AP)

Biden and Zelensky attend a news conference in Kyiv on Monday.
Biden and Zelensky attend a news conference in Kyiv on Monday. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

6:19 a.m. ET, February 20, 2023

Biden declares Putin's "war of conquest" is failing in remarks from Kyiv

From CNN's Kevin Liptak, Allie Malloy and Betsy Klein in Warsaw

US President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attend a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 20.
US President Joe Biden and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky attend a press conference in Kyiv, Ukraine, on February 20. (Dimitar Dilkoff/AFP/Getty Images)

US President Joe Biden declared from Kyiv on Monday that a year after invading Ukraine, "Putin’s war of conquest is failing."

“Putin thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided,” Biden said standing alongside Ukrainian President Volodomyr Zelensky. “He thought he could outlast us. I don’t think he’s thinking that right now.”

“He’s just been plain wrong,” Biden said of Putin. “One year later, the evidence is right here in this room. We stand here together.”

Biden's visit to Ukraine, his first since the invasion, was a highly symbolic moment meant to demonstrate lasting American support for the country and its people.

He harkened back to the start of the war, when the world was anxiously watching the buildup of Russian troops along Ukraine's border.

In his speech, Biden recalled how he and Zelensky spoke by phone as “Russian planes were in the air and tanks were going across your border.”

“You told me that you could hear explosions in the background,” Biden said. “I’ll never forget that.”

“The world was about to change," he said, recalling what Zelensky asked him to do on that phone call: “Gather the leaders of the world. Ask them to support Ukraine.”

“You said that you didn’t know when we’d be able to speak again. That dark night one year ago, the world was literally at the time bracing for the fall of Kyiv,” Biden said. “Perhaps even the end of Ukraine.”

“One year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands,” he declared. “The Americans stand with you and the world stands with you.”

Biden said that Kyiv has “captured a part of my heart."

6:22 a.m. ET, February 20, 2023

Biden flew to Ukraine under cover of darkness, and his trip was kept secret for 24 hours

From CNN's Kevin Liptak

President Biden's trip to Kyiv on Monday was shrouded in secrecy, a reflection of the steep security concerns of visiting an active war zone.

Air Force One departed Joint Base Andrews under cover of darkness at 4:15 a.m. ET on Sunday. Reporters aboard the plane were not allowed to carry their devices with them.

Biden's public schedule didn't reflect the trip, and White House officials repeatedly said last week that a visit to Ukraine was not in the works. 

On Saturday evening, before he departed, Biden went out to dinner with his wife in Washington. He wasn't seen in public again until arriving in Kyiv on Monday morning.

Ukraine is an active war zone where the US military has no control, making Monday's visit different from previous presidential trips to Iraq or Afghanistan. White House officials had repeatedly ruled out a visit earlier in the year.

Biden is traveling with a relatively small entourage, including national security adviser Jake Sullivan, deputy chief of staff Jen O'Malley Dillon and personal aide Annie Tomasini.

President Zelensky first invited Biden to visit Kyiv a year ago, as Russian forces were massing on the border. As recently as last week, Zelensky said his invitation for Biden to visit Ukraine remained open, even as he acknowledged there were other means for them to speak. 

Biden visited Ukraine six times as vice president. His last visit to Kyiv was in January 2017, days before leaving office. Before Monday, that visit remained the last highest-ranking visit to Ukraine, since neither Vice President Pence nor President Trump ever visited.