UZHHOROD, Ukraine (AP) — Jill Biden paid an unannounced visit to western Ukraine on Sunday and held a surprise Mother’s Day meeting with first lady Olena Zelenska to demonstrate U.S. support for the embattled nation as Russia ramps up its punitive war in eastern regions pushes.
Traveling under the guise of secrecy, Biden became 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 felt it was important to show the Ukrainian people that this war must stop and that this war was brutal and that the people of the United States stand behind the people of Ukraine.”
Biden spent about two hours in Ukraine, driving the vehicle to the town of Uzhhorod, about a 10-minute drive from a Slovak village she was traveling to on the border.
Thanking Biden for her “brave act,” Zelenska said, “We understand what it takes for the US First Lady to come here during a war, when military action is happening every day, where the air sirens are being heard every day — even today.” still. ”
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 privately. Zelenska and her children were in an undisclosed location for their safety.
The school where they met has been turned into a temporary shelter for Ukrainian migrants from other parts of the country.
The visit allowed Biden to engage in the kind of personal diplomacy that her husband would happily engage in himself.
President Joe Biden, during his visit to Poland in March, said he was disappointed he couldn’t visit Ukraine to get “first-hand” information on conditions but probably wouldn’t be allowed to for security reasons. The White House said just last week that the President “would like to visit” but has no plans for him at this time.
The meeting came after the two first ladies exchanged correspondence over the past few weeks, according to US officials, who declined to give further details because they were not authorized to discuss the ladies’ private communications.
When she arrived at the school, Biden, who was wearing a Mother’s Day corsage that was a gift from her husband, hugged Zelenska and presented her with a bouquet of flowers.
After meeting privately, the two joined a group of kids living at the school and made bears out of tissue paper to give as Mother’s Day gifts.
Biden’s visit follows recent visits to the war-torn country by US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress, as well as a joint trip by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv .
Her visit was limited to western Ukraine; Russia concentrates its military power in eastern Ukraine and it was not in danger. On the same day as Biden’s visit, a Russian bomb leveled a school in eastern Ukraine whose basement housed about 90 people, with dozens feared dead.
Earlier, in the Slovakian border village of Vysne Nemecke, she toured the border processing facility and toured the operations set up by the United Nations and other aid agencies to support Ukrainians seeking refuge. Biden attended a service in a tent set up as a chapel, where a priest intoned, “We pray for the people of Ukraine.”
And before that, Biden met in Kosice and offered support to Ukrainian mothers in Slovakia displaced by Russia’s war. She assured them that the “hearts of the American people” are behind them.
At a bus stop in the city, which is now a 24-hour refugee processing center, Biden found himself having a lengthy conversation with a Ukrainian woman who said she struggled to explain war to her three children because they didn’t understand it themselves could.
“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?” 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 replied.
The 24-hour facility is one of six refugee centers in Slovakia and provides food, showers, clothing, on-site emergency shelter and other services to an average of 300 to 350 people a day, according to the White House.
Biden also attended a Slovakian public school that has taken in displaced students.
Slovak and Ukrainian mothers were brought together at school for a Mother’s Day event while their children made crafts to give as gifts.
Biden went from table to table to meet the mothers and children. She told some women she wanted to come and “say that the hearts of the American people are with the mothers of Ukraine.”
“I just wanted to come and show you our support,” she said before heading to Vysne Nemecke.
In recent weeks, border crossings have averaged fewer than 2,000 per day, compared to over 10,000 per day immediately after the Russian 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 U.S. support for Ukrainian refugees and for allied countries like Romania and Slovakia that provide them with a safe haven.
She spent Friday and Saturday in Romania, visiting US troops and meeting with Ukrainian refugee mothers and children.
With her journey, the American First Lady followed the path of formerly seated First Ladies, who also traveled to war or conflict zones.
Eleanor Roosevelt visited soldiers abroad during World War II to boost troops’ morale. Pat Nixon accompanied President Richard Nixon on his 1969 trip to South Vietnam and became the first First Lady to visit a combat zone, according to the National First Ladies’ Library. She flew 18 miles from Saigon in an open-top helicopter, escorted by US 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 traveled to Kabul in 2005 and Melania Trump accompanied President Donald Trump to Iraq in December 2018.
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