UZHHOROD, Ukraine — 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.
Biden entered Ukraine in secrecy. He is the latest prominent American to do so during the 10-week-old Russian-Ukraine conflict.
“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 approximately two hours traveling to Ukraine by car, arriving at Uzhorod about 10 minutes from Uzhhorod. She also visited a Slovakian village she visited on the border.
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.”
They met up in a classroom and sat across the table from each other. Zelenska’s children and Zelenska have been in an undisclosed place for their security.
They have now turned the school they attended into temporary housing to accommodate Ukrainian migrants who are currently living in other parts of Ukraine.
Biden could conduct personal diplomacy during the visit, which was exactly what her husband desired.
President Joe Biden said during his visit to Poland in March that he was disappointed he could not visit Ukraine to see conditions “firsthand” 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 the two first ladies exchanged correspondence in recent weeks, according to U.S. officials who declined to provide further details because they were not authorized to discuss the ladies’ private communications.
As she arrived at the school, Biden, who was wearing a Mother’s Day corsage that was a gift from her husband, embraced Zelenska and presented her with a bouquet.
After their private meeting, the two joined a group of children who live at the school in making tissue-paper bears to give as Mother’s Day gifts.
Biden’s visit follows recent stops in the war-torn country by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other members of Congress, as well as 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 limited 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.
She toured the Slovakian border village Vysne Negecke earlier, spotting the operations of the United Nations, and others, to aid the Ukrainian refugees seeking asylum. 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, in Kosice, Biden met 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.
Biden was at the bus station of the city which now houses a refugee processing center that operates 24 hours a day. Biden had an extended conversation about the war with a Ukrainian mother who claimed she can’t explain it to her three kids because it is so hard for her to understand.
“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.
According to White House information, the 24-hour refugee center in Slovakia provides services for between 300 and 350 individuals daily.
Biden was also able to drop in on a Slovakian school, which has taken in students who have been displaced.
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.
Biden met the moms and children at each table. She told 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.
In recent weeks border crossings are averaging less than 2,000 per day, down from over 10,000 per day immediately after Russia’s invasion on Feb. 24, and a large portion of that flow is daily cross border traffic.
Biden will be visiting Eastern Europe for a 4-day trip to promote U.S. support of the Ukrainian refugee crisis and to thank allied countries like Romania and Slovakia for providing safe havens for them.
The American soldier visited her in Romania on Friday and Saturday and met with the children of refugee mother and child from Ukraine.
The American first lady followed in the footsteps of previous first ladies, who traveled to conflict areas or war zones.
Eleanor Roosevelt visited troops overseas during World War II in order to 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. With U.S. Secret Service Agents, she flew the 18-mile distance from Saigon to an open helicopter.
Hillary Clinton made a stop in Bosnia 1996, while visiting a combat zone. In 1996, four years after 9/11 terror attacks, Laura Bush visited Kabul and Melania Trump went with President Donald Trump in December 2018.
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