KYIV: US President Joe Biden on Monday made a trip to Kyiv organized in strict secrecy, promising $500 million in fresh arms deliveries and "unwavering" American support ahead of the first anniversary of Russia's invasion. Air raid sirens rang out across Kyiv at one point as Biden walked alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during what was the US president's first visit to the country since Russian troops invaded on February 24, 2022.

"One year later, Kyiv stands. And Ukraine stands. Democracy stands," Biden said, speaking alongside Zelensky at the Ukrainian president's official residence, the Mariinsky Palace. Russian President Vladimir "Putin thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided. He thought he could outlast us." "He's just been plain wrong," Biden said, adding that "Putin's war of conquest is failing".

The visit was organized in conditions of strict secrecy. Biden left Joint Base Andrews just outside Washington in the early hours of Sunday. After handing over their devices, journalists were made aware of his presence on Air Force One just 15 minutes before the plane took off. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said Washington "did notify the Russians" about the trip "some hours before his departure for deconfliction purposes".

He said it was "unprecedented" in modern times for a US president to visit the capital of a country at war in which the US military "does not control the critical infrastructure". The White House did not report how Biden reached Ukraine, but other foreign leaders have travelled to Kyiv by train from Poland. It was the first trip to Ukraine by a US president to Ukraine since 2008.

Kyiv residents said they were delighted. "This means that the Americans are clearly and irrevocably on our side," said 50-year-old Oksana Shylo. She praised "America's total support". "It's a good sign for the Ukrainian people, for Ukraine's victory," said businessman Vladyslav Denysenko, 27. During the trip, Biden promised an additional $500 million in arms deliveries for Ukraine, mentioning in particular artillery ammunition, howitzers and Javelin anti-tank missiles. Ukraine is estimated to be burning through thousands more shells each month than the EU defense industry is currently able to produce.

The European Union is weighing up plans to try to speed up its production and delivery of much-needed ammunition to help Kyiv's fight. Zelensky said he and Biden also discussed the possibility of supplying "long range weapons" to Ukraine, a long-standing request from Kyiv that has been met with reticence in Washington where there is concern that they could be used to strike deep inside Russian territory.

Zelensky hailed the visit as a key sign of support. "This conversation brings us closer to victory," he said, calling the trip and the promise of additional US arms supplies "an unequivocal signal that Russian attempts to win will have no chance". After their talks, Biden and Zelensky visited St Michael's gold-domed cathedral, which has long been a symbol of Ukrainian resistance, and the air raid sirens were heard across the city as the two leaders left the church.

Biden and Zelensky then laid a wreath at the Wall of Remembrance for the fallen heroes of the Russian-Ukrainian war, as a military salute played, and the two presidents stared down in silence for a few moments. Biden later visited the US embassy in Kyiv before leaving the capital, according to a White House pool report. He is expected to arrive in Poland on Tuesday where he is due to give a major speech in Warsaw - hours after Putin gives a state of the nation address that will be largely devoted to the conflict. During the visit, Biden also promised additional US sanctions.

But new data out on Monday showed the Russian economy was absorbing Western sanctions better than expected. The Russian economy contracted by 2.1 percent last year, according to government statistics agency Rosstat, better than the 2.9 percent contraction forecast by the government in September. Biden's visit came as Beijing lashed out against US claims that China was considering sending arms to Russia to assist in its war in Ukraine.

"It is the United States and not China that is endlessly shipping weapons to the battlefield," China's foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said. "We urge the United States to earnestly reflect on its own actions, and do more to alleviate the situation, promote peace and dialogue, and stop shifting blame and spreading false information," he told a regular briefing.

China's top diplomat Wang Yi has visited several European capitals in recent days to discuss possible ways of ending the conflict in Ukraine and is due to visit Moscow later this week. According to the latest estimates from Norway, the conflict has wounded or killed 180,000 Russian soldiers and 100,000 Ukrainian troops. Other Western sources estimate the war has caused 150,000 casualties on each side. - AFP