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Biden hears Zelenskyy's plan for peace with Russia during surprise visit to Kyiv

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

President Biden is in Poland tonight after a daring and unexpected stop in Kyiv today. Biden arrived just shy of a year since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. He spent the visit with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who called this the most important visit in U.S.-Ukrainian history. NPR's Joanna Kakissis was among a small group of journalists who joined the two presidents for the meeting.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Retired banker Nina Albul says she had a feeling something big was going to happen this morning. She noticed the city center in Kyiv was blocked, and people were everywhere. She wondered - what's going on?

NINA ALBUL: (Through interpreter) And then I saw on the news that Joe Biden came here, and I couldn't believe it. I phoned and text everyone I knew, and I asked, is it true or am I hallucinating?

KAKISSIS: She says Biden's visit touched her so much she cried.

ALBUL: (Through interpreter) Our young men and women are fighting to keep Ukraine free. And here is this famous man visiting us in the middle of a war.

KAKISSIS: A year ago, many predicted Ukraine and its capital would fall to Russia within days. Today, President Biden was in Kyiv standing side-by-side with Zelenskyy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: You and all Ukrainians, Mr. President, remind the world every single day what the meaning of the word courage is.

KAKISSIS: Biden recalled calling Zelenskyy the night Russia invaded almost a year ago, on February 24.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: You told me that you could hear the explosions in the background - I'll never forget that - and the world was about to change. I remember it vividly because I asked you next - I asked you, what is there, Mr. President? What can I do for you? How can I be of help?

KAKISSIS: Zelenskyy said get the world to support Ukraine. Biden says he did just that, and the Western coalition has stuck together.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Putin thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided. As you know, Mr. President, I said to you in the beginning, he's counting on us not sticking together. He thought he could outlast us. I don't think he's thinking that right now.

KAKISSIS: Biden said sanctions have weakened the Russian economy and that the U.S. would seek even more of them. And Biden announced that he's seeking another half a billion dollars in aid for Ukraine, something which energized Zelenskyy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT VOLODYMYR ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) Such an hefty aid package is an unambiguous signal that Russian attempts to take revenge on Ukraine will be fruitless.

KAKISSIS: Zelenskyy also laid out his plan for peace with Russia. It includes giving Ukraine NATO-style security guarantees and forcing Russia to return Ukrainian territory it has taken by force. He suggested Biden likes his plan.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ZELENSKYY: (Through interpreter) We agree on most points of my peace formula. It's a security imperative to restore the U.N. charter and to defend an international order based on human rights.

(SOUNDBITE OF BUGLE BLOWING)

KAKISSIS: After their speeches, the two presidents paid tribute at a makeshift memorial to Ukrainians who have been killed fighting Russian forces. The memorial is outside St Michael's, the golden-domed cathedral that serves as the headquarters of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

(SOUNDBITE OF AIR RAID SIREN)

KAKISSIS: And as the two presidents walked inside, an air raid siren went off, a sign that Ukraine is still very much a country at war. Joanna Kakissis, NPR News, Kyiv. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.