President Biden is facing pressure to travel to Ukraine as other world leaders have done.
Former Secret Service agents said such a trip would present a security “nightmare.”
A safer approach, agents said, would be to send the secretary of state or another top official.
A steady stream of leaders from the Baltics to the UK have surfaced in Ukraine to show solidarity with the country’s charismatic president and thumb their nose at Russia from the capital Vladimir Putin’s soldiers failed to conquer.
Those trips have raised the question: Will President Joe Biden follow in their footsteps in a sign of solidarity against a Russia leader he called a “war criminal”?
But a trip by Biden to Ukraine raises almost insurmountable security issues, former Secret Service agents told Insider. It would leave the American leader in a wartorn country and highly vulnerable to Russian attack, without the US military control that has accommodated his predecessors’ trips to conflict zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan in recent years, according to former Secret Service agents and others familiar with White House travel logistics.
Amid questions and speculation about such a trip, former secret agents and White House advance staff told Insider that it would be reckless for Biden to make a journey like that, even in a show of solidarity against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. In addition to risking lives, such a trip would also require US personnel and equipment that Russia would likely view as an act of aggression and in a war the US has assiduously avoided entering.
Between the thousands of troops and Russia’s well-documented disregard for shelling civilian targets, “it’s just too much of a risk,” said Bill Pickle, a former Secret Service agent who once headed the vice presidential protective division.
“You can not control the environment. You’ve just set yourself up for so many bad things if the president goes,” Pickle said.
“It’s a logistical nightmare even in peacetime,” he added. “In wartime, you multiply that by 10, and that’s what you’d be facing.”
The question of a Ukraine trip has lingered with the Biden administration for the past several days, in spite of comments that appeared to throw cold water on the possible presidential journey.
Biden said that his administration was deciding whether to send officials to Ukraine. And when asked if he was ready to go, he responded, “Yeah.”
But when asked about a possible trip to Ukraine, White House press secretary Jen Psaki was unequivocal last week: “We are not sending the president to Ukraine,” she said.
Still, speculation simmered about Biden making a trip in a show of solidarity against Russia’s invasion, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky calling on him in a recent interview to follow in the footsteps of other world leaders – including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson – and “come here to see. “
At the White House press briefing Monday, Psaki said “there’s no plans for the president to go, so let me just reiterate that.”
But there’s a long history of presidents visiting conflict zones. In 1864, a year before his assassination, President Abraham Lincoln came under gunfire visiting Union soldiers at Fort Stevens in Washington, DC. In the 21st century, George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump all traveled at least once to visit US soldiers in Afghanistan and Iraq – with each trip involving secretive, weeks-long preparations, former Secret Service agents said.
“It could be in the pages of a Tom Clancy novel,” a former Secret Service agent told Insider. “It’s the true need-to-know situation.”
But there would be no chance of evading Russian radar and reconnaissance and covertly slipping into Ukraine or a neighboring country under the cover of darkness. And that’s just the beginning of the challenges such a trip would pose.
A trip would require weeks of advance work that could quickly be rendered moot in the fluid, fast-changing war. Russia cruise missiles still threaten cities like Kyiv and Lyiv that are now far from frontlines in the country’s east and south.
“What puts all that advance planning at stake is when you do not control the environment you’re going to,” said Charles Marino, who served as a supervisory agent on Biden’s Secret Service detail during his vice presidency.
“Even though we’ve been to warzones in the past where the US was involved and in control … when visiting with a president or a vice president we never took anything for granted. It was important to remember it was still an active warzone .Is still on, “Marino, now the CEO of the consulting firm Sentinel Security Solutions, told Insider.
“We’re still targets. There’s still a war. So why introduce, in Ukraine, a high-value US target without US military support directly involved?”
In some ways, the very question of a Biden trip to Ukraine marks a turn in the optics and expectations surrounding a White House. Presidents have long faced questions about visiting locations where American troops are deployed.
But with a trip to Ukraine, Biden would visit a country that, while receiving security assistance from the United States, has no American troops because his administration ordered them to out of the country to avoid the risk of an escalation with Russia, a possibility he called “World War III.” Any trip would involve not a visit of American troops but a tour – limited as it may be – of a battered country where Russians are suspected of having committed war crimes.
Before the UK prime minister’s surprise visit, other European leaders traveled to Kyiv to meet with Zelensky. Two lawmakers, Sen. Steve Daines of Montana and Rep. Victoria Spartz of Indiana, recently visited destroyed homes in Kyiv and mass graves in Bucha, becoming the first US officials known to have visited Ukraine since Russia invaded.
After encountering unexpected resistance in the capital, Russia forces have refocused their offensive on eastern Ukraine and the city of Mariupol. Even with the withdrawal of troops from around Kyiv, a trip to the Ukrainian capital would risk exposing American officials to a Russian strike – whether inadvertent or intentional – that would raise the risk of inflaming the conflict and even sparking a third world war, former Secret Service agents and White House advance staff said.
Biden cannot “waltz into Ukraine and put a finger in Putin’s eye without consequence,” said Brad Blakeman, a former White House aide who handled advance work for George W. Bush’s foreign travel.
“It would be so perilous, and so rolling of the dice. It’s fraught with danger on so many levels,” Blakeman said.
The idea of Biden traveling to Ukraine, he added, “should be completely dismissed.”