A spy plane from Germany and a US fighter jet were used in a top-secret plan to get Ukrainian President, Volodymr Zelensky, who has reportedly been a target of multiple assassination attempts, safely to the US for a surprise visit in Washington.
On Tuesday, Mr Zelensky visited the frontline city of Bakhmut, where he hinted at a first foreign trip since Russia’s invasion began almost 10 months ago.
Some 48 hours later, the red carpet was rolled out for him after he arrived at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland.
The 12-hour visit took months to plan, amid grave security concerns for Mr Zelensky, who turned up at the White House in his signature army green attire, a stark reminder of the conflict back at home.
How it unravelled
The trip started with a secretive train journey to Przemyśl, a Polish border town, according to the country’s private broadcaster, TVN24.
Accompanied by the US ambassador to Ukraine, Bridget Brink, Mr Zelensky was transported in a US embassy vehicle to an airport in Rzeszów, where he boarded the US Air Force for a direct flight that landed at Joint Base Andrews shortly after noon on Wednesday.
Once the Air Force jet landed, the Secret Service protection kicked in, a common practice when a head of states visits, the Associated Press reported, quoting US officials giving behind-the-scenes details of the trip.
The White House waited until 1am on Wednesday, when they knew that Mr Zelensky was safely out of Ukraine, to announce the ex-comedian’s visit, which involved a meeting with US President Joe Biden at the White House and an appearance in Congress.
MailOnline reported that a Boeing AWACS (airborne warning and control system) spy plane was sent from Germany to ensure it was safe to fly over the North Sea, where there are Russian submarine patrols.
An F-15 fighter jet then took off from the US base in Mildenhall, Suffolk, escorting the Air Force as it passed through Scotland before turning back.
Adviser to the head of Ukraine’s President’s Office, Mikhail Podolyak, previously told online news outlet Ukrainian Pravda he believed there had been more than a dozen attempts to kill Mr Zelensky since Russia launched its invasion on 24 February.
ABC News reported that the US Security Service collaborated with the FBI, Capital Police, the CIA and other intelligence sources to ensure security during Mr Zelensky’s visit.
One senior security official said: “We are very cognisant that Russia has assets in this country and might try to do something. We know what is at stake.”
The official added that he was worried about Mr Zelensky’s safety upon returning home to Ukraine.
“Putin and the Kremlin know he has to get back to home,” he said.
Details of Mr Zelensky’s trip had been kept secret until they were tweeted on Tuesday by a reporter from US-based newsletter Punchbowl News.
Mr Zelensky travelled by motorcade to Blair House, the presidential guest house along Pennsylvania Avenue and, after freshening up from his trip, he travelled to the White House, where he was greeted by Mr Biden and his wife Jill.
A senior Biden administration official told reporters late on Tuesday that they had discussed with Mr Zelensky the “security parameters” of a brief trip to the US.
Former Nato supreme allied commander of Europe, Wesley Clark, was quoted as saying by CNN: “This is a window of opportunity for Ukraine and a window of danger as well.
“Russia’s weak [but] Russia will be stronger. This is a period where the United States needs to pour in the support.
“This is the window, President Zelensky knows it – if he is going to defeat, with US support, the Russian aggression in Ukraine.”
‘I wanted to come earlier’
Mr Zelensky had on several occasions told Mr Biden and other senior officials the US would be the first country he would visit when the time was right, according to a US official with knowledge of the conversations.
On 14 December, Mr Biden re-extended an invitation to his Ukrainian counterpart, according to a senior administration official.
Mr Zelensky accepted the invitation on Friday, with the trip being confirmed on Sunday.
“I really wanted to come earlier. Mr President knows about it, but I couldn’t do it because the situation was so difficult,” Mr Zelensky said on Wednesday from the Oval Office.
The trip could happen now, the Ukrainian leader said, because “we controlled the situation and… first of all, because of your support”.
Mr Biden told Mr Zelensky: “I’m delighted you were able to make the trip to be here.
“It’s an honour to be by your side in united defence against what is a brutal, brutal war being waged by [Russian President Vladimir] Putin.”
US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, also announced the US would provide another $1.85bn (£1.54bn) in military aid for Ukraine, including the highly-advanced Patriot air defence system, to help it to ward off barrages of Russian missiles.
Additional reporting by agencies