UZHHOROD, Ukraine — Jill Biden, the first lady, traveled to western Ukraine on Sunday on an unannounced trip, the latest show of support from the United States, which has significantly increased military aid to Ukraine in recent weeks and others close to President Biden sent into the country.
dr. Biden met Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, at a school that had been converted to help refugees who had come from other parts of the country to Uzhhorod, a city of 100,000 residents a few miles from the border with Slovakia. Ms. Zelenska, wife of President Volodymyr Zelensky, had not been seen in public since the Russian invasion began on February 24.
“I thought it was important to show the Ukrainian people that this war has to stop and that this war has been cruel,” said Dr. Biden told reporters as she sat at a table opposite Ms. Zelenska, “and that the people of the United States stand behind the people of Ukraine.”
dr. Biden made her trip on a day of public demonstrations of support for Ukraine, with visits from Bono and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, and while rescuers searched for survivors of a Russian airstrike on a school in the east that officials feared had left dozens dead. In Kiev, a team of senior US diplomats returned to the US embassy for the first time since Russia invaded Ukraine, a move to coincide with Victory in Europe Day.
The day was a patchwork of hope and foreboding. Her visit also came as Western officials braced for the possibility that Russia’s President Vladimir V. Putin would use his country’s victory day, which falls on Monday, as a reason to intensify attacks on Ukrainian civilians.
Ukrainian officials understand the emotional power of social media and headlines written by the Western press and have invited a number of Western officials — and Bono — to the country in recent days. According to Michael LaRosa, the spokesperson for the first lady, they have several days before Dr. Biden’s planned four-day tour of Eastern Europe was contacted to propose a meeting with Ms. Zelenska in Ukraine.
A visit with such a high stakes is a rarity for any seated first lady; they don’t usually visit war zones, and the last to travel alone was Laura Bush, who visited Afghanistan in 2008. dr. Biden, an English professor who teaches full-time, has so far spent much of her time as first lady traveling the United States, urging Americans to take vaccines and supporting community colleges, or touting Mr. Biden’s plans for social spending.
So far, she’s had relatively little to say about Ukraine, but her outspoken call to end the war on Sunday was a departure that reflected the bolder and broader steps the Biden administration has taken to act against Russian aggression without Moscow. to involve. in all-out war.
It also seemed like an opportunity for the first lady — who, like many before her, has put her identity as a mother at the center — to use her office to highlight the realities of the war in Ukraine: as many as 90 percent of those displaced are women. and children, according to United Nations figures.
Ms. Zelenska, 44, was one of the first to be displaced when the war started.
In a speech just days after the first Russian missiles fell on Ukraine’s capital Kiev, Mr. Zelensky that he knew he was the first target for murder in the event of an occupation. His wife and children, Oleksandra, 17, and Kyrylo, 9, he said, are “target No. 2.” Since then, her whereabouts have been kept private.
Ms Zelenska, a first lady who once focused on issues of women’s empowerment, literacy and culture in Ukraine, now, like her husband, spends much of her time trying to draw the world’s attention to what’s happening. happening in her country. Writing to Dr. Biden in April, she expressed concern for the emotional well-being of Ukraine’s citizens, Mr. LaRosa said.
Her concerns seemed to have been taken care of by Dr. Biden, who spent much of her time in front of the cameras questioning humanitarian workers about their capacity to support women and children who had endured the trauma of war.
Stop after stop, in Romania and Slovakia and later in Ukraine, Dr. Biden with children with circles of exhaustion under their eyes and mothers about to cry. Standing between bottles of formula and worn-out toys, she asked if volunteers had what they needed.
Allida Black, a historian who studies first ladies, said the work of Dr. Biden stood in the tradition of other first ladies who had traveled under supervision to witness the “personification of pain,” hearing stories of trauma and war, all within the confines of an unelected role within the administration.
“There’s real finesse in this,” said Dr. Black, who has been an adviser to Hillary Clinton. “Because you have to carry all those memories with you. It’s hard work.”
Before stopping in Ukraine on Sunday, Dr. Biden to the Slovakian city of Kosice, where she met refugees at a bus station that had been converted to help newcomers to the country.
There, a woman named Viktozie Kutocha grabbed her daughter, Yulie, and told the first lady that she was having a hard time explaining to her child what had happened to their lives.
“How can I explain this to a child? It’s impossible,” she said. “I try to keep them safe. It is my mission.”
War between Russia and Ukraine: important developments
A token of support. In a high-profile show of solidarity with Ukraine on the eve of an important Russian military holiday, Jill Biden, the first lady, paid an unannounced visit to western Ukraine. Canada’s leader Justin Trudeau also made an unannounced trip to the Kiev suburb of Irpin.
“It’s pointless,” said Dr. Biden.
After crossing the border into Ukraine, she was driven to the parking lot of a school building for about 15 minutes. Mrs. Zelenska quietly slipped out of a vehicle to greet her.
The two women exchanged hugs and later Ms. Zelenska thanked Dr. Biden for the “courageous” visit.
“We understand what it takes for the US first lady to come here during a war, where the military actions happen every day, where the air sirens sound every day, even today,” she told Dr. Biden.
In a private meeting, the two women discussed their concerns about the war and also discussed their personal lives. (At one point, Ms. Zelenska asked the first lady how she could travel while working full-time as a teacher. Dr. Biden told her she had just finished graduating from high school and the semester was over.)
Their two-hour visit to the school was intended to focus on children and the humanitarian work needed to house some 160 refugees, including 47 children, in the building, but even the most innocent of interactions betray the tension of War: An agent flew a portable metal detector over a child who had entered a classroom just before Dr. Biden and Mrs. Zelenska entered.
dr. Biden spent about two hours in Ukraine before returning to Slovakia, but before saying goodbye, she slipped a pocket-sized medallion called a challenge coin into the hands of one of Ms. Zelenska’s bodyguards. The man took a Ukrainian flag pin from his lapel and handed it to her.
The visit made Dr. Biden the latest high-profile person close to Mr Biden to travel to Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III visited Kiev last month, and Chairman Nancy Pelosi met with Mr. Zelensky there last week.
Mr Biden traveled to Poland for three days at the end of March. While visiting troops near the border with Ukraine, he did not stop in the country due to security concerns.
Shortly after she left school in Ukraine, the first lady called her husband, who was at home in Wilmington, Del., from her motorcade.
On Monday, Dr. Biden plans to meet Zuzana Caputova, the president of Slovakia, in Bratislava, the country’s capital, before returning to Washington.