Jill Biden paid an unannounced visit to western Ukraine on Sunday, holding a surprise Mother’s Day meeting with first lady Olena Zelenska to show America’s support for the beleaguered nation as Russia presses its punishing war on the eastern regions.
Biden traveled under the cloak of secrecy, becoming the latest high-profile American to enter Ukraine during its 10-week conflict with Russia.
“I wanted to come on Mother’s Day,” the US first lady told Zelenska. “I thought it was important to show the Ukrainian people that this war has to stop and that this war has been brutal and that the people of the United States stand with the people of Ukraine.”
Biden spent about two hours in Ukraine, traveling by car to the city of Uzhhorod, about a 10-minute drive from a Slovakian border village where he had toured a border processing facility.
Zelenska thanked Biden for his “courageous act” and said, “We understand what it takes for the first lady of the United States to come here during a war when military actions are taking place every day, where airborne sirens wail every day, even today.”
The two first ladies met in a small classroom, sat across from each other at a table and greeted each other in front of reporters before meeting in private. Zelenska and her children have been to an undisclosed location for her safety.
The school where they met has become transitional housing for Ukrainian immigrants from other parts of the country.
The visit allowed Biden to conduct the kind of personal diplomacy that her husband would like to do himself.
President Joe Biden, who received a call from his wife while she was in the motorcade after the visit to Uzhhorod, said during his visit to Poland in March that he was disappointed he couldn’t visit Ukraine to see conditions “firsthand.” , but that was not allowed, probably due to security reasons. The White House said last week that the president “would love to visit,” but there were no plans for him to do so at this time.
The meeting came after the two first ladies exchanged correspondence in recent weeks, according to US officials who declined to provide further details because they were not authorized to discuss the ladies’ private communications.
When she arrived at school, Biden, wearing a Mother’s Day corsage that was a gift from her husband, hugged Zelenska and handed her a bouquet. After their private meeting, the two joined a group of children who live at the school to make tissue paper bears for Mother’s Day gifts.
Biden’s visit follows recent stops in the war-torn country by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress, as well as a joint trip by the secretary of state. Secretary of Defense Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in kyiv. .
His visit was limited to western Ukraine; Russia is concentrating its military power in eastern Ukraine and was not in danger. On the same day as Biden’s visit, a Russian bomb destroyed a school in eastern Ukraine that housed some 90 people in its basement, with dozens feared dead. Also on Sunday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau visited Ukraine to meet with the president and “reaffirm Canada’s unwavering support for the Ukrainian people,” according to his office.
Previously, in the Slovakian border village of Vysne Nemecke, he toured its border processing facilities, inspecting operations set up by the United Nations and other aid organizations to help Ukrainians seeking refuge. Biden attended a church service in a tent set up as a chapel, where a priest intoned: “We pray for the people of Ukraine.”
And before that, in Kosice, Biden met with and offered support to Ukrainian mothers in Slovakia who have been displaced by Russia’s war. She assured them that the “hearts of the American people” are behind them.
At a bus station in the city that is now a 24-hour refugee processing center, Biden found himself in a prolonged conversation with a Ukrainian woman who said she has a hard time explaining the war to her three children because she can’t understand it herself. .
“I can’t explain it because I don’t know myself and I’m a teacher,” Victorie Kutocha, who had her arms around her 7-year-old daughter, Yulie, told Biden.
At one point, Kutocha asked, “Why?” he seems to be looking for an explanation for Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine on February 24.
“It’s so hard to understand,” the first lady responded.
The 24-hour facility is one of six refugee centers in Slovakia and provides an average of 300 to 350 people daily with food, showers, clothing, on-site emergency accommodation and other services, according to information provided by the White House.
Biden also visited a Slovak public school that has taken in displaced students.
Slovak and Ukrainian mothers gathered at the school for a Mother’s Day event as their children made crafts to give to them.
Biden went from table to table meeting with the mothers and children. She told some of the women that she wanted to come and “say that the hearts of the American people go out to the mothers of Ukraine.”
“I just wanted to come and show you our support,” he said before leaving for Vysne Nemecke.
In recent weeks, border crossings have averaged fewer than 2,000 a day, down from more than 10,000 a day in the immediate aftermath of Russia’s invasion on February 24, and a large part of that flow is daily cross-border traffic.
Biden is on a four-day visit to Eastern Europe to highlight US support for Ukrainian refugees and allied countries such as Romania and Slovakia that provide them with a safe haven.
He spent Friday and Saturday in Romania, visiting US troops and meeting with Ukrainian refugee mothers and children.
With her trip, the American first lady followed the path of previous acting first ladies who also traveled to war or conflict zones.
Eleanor Roosevelt visited servicemen abroad during World War II to help boost the morale of the troops. Pat Nixon joined President Richard Nixon on his 1969 trip to South Vietnam, becoming the first first lady to visit a combat zone, according to the National Library of First Ladies. She flew 18 miles from Saigon in an open helicopter, accompanied by United States Secret Service agents.
Hillary Clinton visited a combat zone and stopped in Bosnia in 1996. Four years after the 9/11 terrorist attacks and during the US-led war in Afghanistan, Laura Bush went to Kabul in 2005 and Melania Trump accompanied the president Donald Trump to Iraq in December. 2018.
This story has been corrected to reflect that the name of the first lady of Ukraine is Olena Zelenska, not Olena Zelenskyy.