UZHHOROD, Ukraine (AP) — Jill Biden made an unannounced visit to western Ukraine on Sunday, holding a surprise Mother’s Day meeting with first lady Olena Zelenska to show U.S. support for the embattled nation as Russia presses its punishing war in the eastern regions.
Jill Biden became the latest high-profile American to enter Ukraine during the war, while Zalenska’s public appearance was her first since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24
“I wanted to come on Mother’s Day,” the U.S. first lady told Zelenska. “I thought it was important to show the Ukrainian people that this war has to stop and 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 vehicle to the town of Uzhhorod, about a 10-minute drive from a Slovakian border village where she had toured a border processing facility.
Zelenska thanked Biden for her “courageous act” and said, “We understand what it takes for the U.S. first lady to come here during a war when military actions are taking place every day, where the air sirens are happening every day — even today.”
The first ladies met at a school being used to temporarily house Ukrainian migrants. Zalenska arrived first and waited in her black SUV until Biden arrived in similar fashion. The women stepped out of their vehicles and embraced, with Biden — who wore a wrist corsage for Mother’s Day — handing over a bouquet of flowers before they entered the school.
The women came together in a small classroom, sitting on either side of a wooden table and greeting each other in front of reporters before they met in private. Zelenska and her two children have been staying at an undisclosed location for their safety.
The visit allowed Biden to conduct the kind of personal diplomacy that her husband would like to do himself.
President Joe Biden said when he visited Poland in March that he was disappointed he could not cross the border and go into Ukraine to see conditions “first-hand”, but that he was not allowed, likely due to security reasons.
The White House said as recently as 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 about after Jill Biden expressed interest in visiting the region, including the school where she and Zalenska met, and settled on the idea of spending Mother’s Day with Ukrainian moms, said Michael LaRosa, the first lady’s spokesperson.
He said the Ukrainian government informed the United States that Zalenska would like to meet, if possible, and that a meeting was finalised in recent days. The first ladies also had recently exchanged correspondence, according to U.S. officials who declined to provide further details because they were not authorized to discuss those private communications.
After meeting privately for about a half hour, the first ladies joined a group of children who live at the school in making tissue-paper bears to give as Mother’s Day gifts.
LaRosa described their conversation as “more of a personal mother-to-mother exchange” and said Biden was interested in how Zalenska was coping “through that lens.”
He said Zalenska told Biden that she was able to hold her children’s hands every night even though she could not be with her husband.
The Bidens spoke by telephone afterward, he said.
Biden’s visit followed recent stops in the war-torn country by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress, and a joint trip by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.
Her visit was to western Ukraine; Russia is concentrating its military power in eastern Ukraine, and she was not in harm’s way. On the same day as Biden’s visit, a Russian bomb flattened a school in eastern Ukraine that had been sheltering about 90 people in its basement, with dozens feared dead. Also 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.
Earlier, in the Slovakian border village of Vysne Nemecke, Biden toured its border processing facility, surveying operations set up by the United Nations and relief organizations to assist Ukrainians seeking refuge. Biden attended a religious service in a tent set up as a chapel, where a priest intoned, “We pray for the people of Ukraine.”
And before that, at a school in Kosice, Biden offered support to Ukrainian mothers in Slovakia. 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 centre, Biden found herself in an extended conversation with a Ukrainian woman who said she struggles to explain the war to her three children because she cannot understand it herself.
“I cannot explain 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?” seeming to seek an explanation for Russia’s decision to invade Ukraine on Feb. 24.
‘It’s so hard to understand,” the first lady replied.
Biden also dropped in at a Slovakian public school that has taken in displaced students. Slovakian and Ukrainian moms were brought together at the school for a Mother’s Day event while their children made crafts to give them as gifts.
She went from table to table meeting the mothers and kids, telling some of the women that she wanted to come and “say 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 departing for Vysne Nemecke.
Biden is on a four-day visit to Eastern Europe to highlight U.S. support for Ukrainian refugees and for allied countries such as Romania and Slovakia that are providing a safe haven for them.
She spent Friday and Saturday in Romania, visiting with U.S. troops and meeting with Ukrainian refugee mothers and children.
With her trip, the American first lady followed the path of prior sitting first ladies who also travelled to war or conflict zones.
Eleanor Roosevelt visited servicemen abroad during World War II to help boost troop morale. 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 First Ladies’ Library. She flew 18 miles from Saigon in an open helicopter, accompanied by U.S. Secret Service agents.
Hillary Clinton visited a combat zone, stopping in Bosnia in 1996. Laura Bush visited Afghanistan twice, in 2005 and 2008, during the U.S.-led war there. Melania Trump accompanied President Donald Trump to Iraq in December 2018.
By DARLENE SUPERVILLE, Associated Press
The story has been corrected to reflect that the name of Ukraine’s first lady is Olena Zelenska, not Olena Zelenskyy.