US First Lady Jill Biden makes unannounced visit to Ukraine

US first lady Jill Biden (left) met Ukraine's first lady, Olena Zelenska, on May 8, 2022. PHOTO: REUTERS

 WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) -  Jill Biden, the first lady, travelled to western Ukraine in an unannounced trip on Sunday (May 8), the latest show of support from the United States, which has significantly increased military aid for Ukraine in recent weeks. 

Jill Biden met Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, at a school in Uzhhorod, a town of 100,000 people a few miles from the border with Slovakia.

The town’s population has doubled in recent weeks with the arrival of people fleeing fighting elsewhere in the country.  

Zelenska, wife of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, has not been seen in public since Russia’s invasion began Feb 24. She and Jill Biden embraced outside the school, which has been converted to a temporary shelter for fleeing families, and Jill Biden gave her a bouquet.

In a small room afterward, the two women briefly addressed reporters, with Zelenska thanking Jill Biden for her “courageous” visit.  “We understand what it takes for the US first lady to come here during a war, where the military actions are taking place every day, where the air sirens are happening every day, even today,” she said. 

Jill Biden made her trip on a day of public displays of support for Ukraine and as rescuers searched for survivors from a Russian airstrike on a school in the east that officials feared had left dozens dead.  

Zelensky was scheduled to meet virtually on Sunday with President Joe Biden and the other leaders of the Group of 7, some of the world’s most powerful economies. 

Led by the United States, most members have increased their efforts to aid Ukraine, sending more money and military equipment. 

Jill Biden said that she wanted to make the visit 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,” she said.  

The two first ladies had exchanged correspondence in recent weeks, according to US officials. Jill Biden was initially scheduled to tour a border crossing in Vysne Nemecke, Slovakia, near Ukraine’s western border, but State Department and National Security Council officials determined on Sunday that she could safely cross into the country. 

The two women met privately for roughly an hour on Sunday before joining a group of children for a crafting project.

In a sign of the delicate nature of the visit, a security agent passed a handheld metal detector over a child who had entered the classroom just before the first ladies. 

Jill Biden spent about two hours in Ukraine before crossing back into Slovakia.  

The visit made Jill Biden the latest high-profile person close to Joe Biden to travel to Ukraine. 

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin visited Kyiv, the capital, last month, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi met Zelensky there last week. 

The details of both trips were shrouded in secrecy because of security concerns.  

Joe Biden travelled to Poland for three days at the end of March. While he visited troops near the border with Ukraine, he stopped short of entering the country because of security concerns. 

Earlier Sunday, Jill Biden met with refugee families at an emergency aid center in Kosice, Slovakia. 

On Saturday, she visited the US Embassy in Bucharest, Romania, and met humanitarian workers who briefed her on their efforts to assist Ukrainians.

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