March 28, 2023
TOKYO – It was late February when Prime Minister Fumio Kishida decided to make his March visit to Kyiv. For security reasons, the plan was worked out in the strictest secrecy, with thorough intelligence management.
Behind the scenes, preparations were made for the first visit since World War II by a Japanese prime minister to an active combat zone.
Just an hour before Kishida left India for Ukraine via Poland, a government official told security police protecting the prime minister and medical staff: “We are going to Ukraine right now. Don’t say a word to anyone and please prepare to leave.”
The scene was the Taj Palace hotel, where Kishida was staying in New Delhi, on the night of March 20.
According to the government’s originally announced schedule, Kishida was supposed to be on his way back to Japan on the morning of March 21 after having held a summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi earlier on March 20.
One of those instructed to join Kishida’s small traveling party at an hour’s notice made an excuse to colleagues, “I’m not feeling well, so I’m going to work from my room.” This person then joined Kishida’s group.
Accompanying Kishida on his visit to Kyiv were about 10 people, including Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Seiji Kihara and Takeo Akiba, the secretary general of the National Security Secretariat.
Shortly after 8 p.m., Kishida and the traveling party rode down one of the hotel’s freight elevators. Slipping out, they headed for an airport in New Delhi in a vehicle.
Someone murmured inside the vehicle, “Nobody found out, did they?”
G7 summit in mind
Like a mystical leviathan, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s plan to Kyiv was what a senior Foreign Ministry official described as a repeated surfacing then disappearing.
When information about a planned visit was leaked last December, Kishida expressed his anger to those around him.
“With things like this, I can never go,” he said.
Kishida strongly felt he needed to visit Ukraine as Japan chairs the G7 this year and will host its summit in Hiroshima in May. Calling on other G7 leaders to see the reality of the atomic bombing in Hiroshima, the prime minister didn’t believe he could lead discussions at the summit if he hadn’t seen the reality of the war started by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
In late February when Kishida hatched another plan to visit Kyiv, the Foreign Ministry was leaning toward a view that it would be difficult for the prime minister to visit Ukraine without making such a plan public.
“If the Foreign Ministry cannot maintain absolute secrecy, we don’t need it,” Kishida said angrily to Vice Foreign Minister Takeo Mori.
That very month, U.S. President Joe Biden and Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni, both G7 members, had visited Kyiv. Biden had been there on Feb. 20 with Meloni arriving the next day. Since Feb. 24, 2022, when Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, Kishida had been the only G7 leader who had not visited Kyiv.
With Kishida concluding that he could no longer put off his visit, the plan was settled in late February that he would head for Kyiv in conjunction with his visit to India in March.
In response to instructions from the Prime Minister’s Office, the Foreign Ministry prepared for the visit with a team of officials including Senior Deputy Foreign Minister Shigeo Yamada. Thus arrived the events of the night of March 20.
The vehicle that set out for the airport in New Delhi was packed. Caught in traffic jams amid heavy rain, it took more than 30 minutes to arrive at the airport.
According to Flightradar24, a private website that makes public global flight paths and flight data, and the accounts of accompanying officials, the chartered plane carrying Kishida and this traveling party took off for Poland at 8:56 p.m.
After a nearly 7½-hour flight, the plane arrived at an airport in southeastern Poland at 11:41 p.m. The party then drove to Przemysl, a railway station near the Ukrainian border, to board a train to Kyiv.
Soon after boarding, Kishida took out his mobile phone and informed several senior officials of the ruling parties that he was heading to Kyiv.
As the train approached the border with Ukraine, all on board turned off their mobile phones and placed them in a shielding box that blocks electromagnetic waves from entering or leaving. This avoids their location from being pinpointed.
The train sped up, slowed down and even stopped at times, for fear of a missile attack by the Russian military. With great care taken, the train at last reached Kyiv.
A summit between Kishida and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy took place in the capital on March 21. Zelenskyy welcomed him, saying he was truly grateful and that Kishida was the first leader to have come from so far away.
“In some shape or form before the G7 summit in Hiroshima, I had strongly hoped to speak directly in Ukraine to convey our unwavering solidarity,” Kishida said at a joint press conference that followed the summit.
Having witnessed the reality of the damage wrought by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Kishida is determined to play a leading role in supporting Kyiv, with his eyes fixed on the summit in Hiroshima.