US First Lady Jill Biden made an unannounced visit to Western Ukraine on Sunday and held a surprise Mother's Day meeting with the Ukrainian First Lady Olena Zelenska as Russia continues to pound the country's eastern regions.
Biden travelled under the cloak of secrecy, becoming the latest high-profile American to visit Ukraine during its war with Russia that's now in its third month.
Biden told Zelenska, “I wanted to come on Mother's Day. 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.”
The first lady travelled by vehicle to the town of Uzhhorod, about a 10-minute drive from a Slovakian village that borders Ukraine. She spent about two hours in Ukraine.
On this Mother’s Day, my heart is with you, First Lady Olena Zelenska, and all of the brave and resilient mothers of Ukraine. pic.twitter.com/tCMXCXhgiY— Jill Biden (@FLOTUS) May 8, 2022
The two came together in a small classroom, sitting across a table from one another and talking before reporters before they met in private. Zelenska and her children have been at an undisclosed location for their safety.
Zelenska thanked Biden for her “courageous act”. She said, “We understand what it takes for the US 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 school where they met has been turned into transitional housing for Ukrainian migrants from elsewhere in the country. The visit allowed Biden to conduct the kind of personal diplomacy that her husband would like to be doing himself.
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 US officials who declined to provide further details because they were not authorised 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.
Jill 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 US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to meet President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv.
Biden's visit was limited to Western Ukraine as Russia is currently concentrating its military power in Eastern Ukraine. She was not in harm's way.
Earlier, in the Slovakian border village of Vysne Nemecke, Biden toured its border processing facility, surveying operations set up by the United Nations and other relief organisations 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.”
Before that, in Kosice, Biden met and offered support to Ukrainian mothers in Slovakia who have been displaced by Russia's war and assuring 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 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 February 24.
"It's so hard to understand,” the first lady replied.
The 24-hour facility is one of six refugee centers in Slovakia, providing an average of 300 to 350 people daily with food, showers, clothing, emergency on-site accommodations and other services, according to information provided by the White House.
Biden also dropped in at a Slovakian public school that has taken in displaced students.
Slovakian and Ukrainian mothers were brought together at the school for a Mother's Day event while their children made crafts to give them as gifts.
Biden went from table to table meeting the mothers and kids. 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 in February, and a large portion 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 for the allied countries such as Romania and Slovakia that are providing a safe haven for them. She spent Friday and Saturday in Romania, visiting US troops and meeting Ukrainian refugee mothers and children.
With her trip, the American first lady followed the path of prior sitting first ladies who also traveled to war or conflict zones.
Eleanor Roosevelt visited servicemen abroad during Second World War 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 US Secret Service agents.
Hillary Clinton visited a combat zone, stopping 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 President Donald Trump to Iraq in December 2018.
(With AP inputs)