“I wanted to come on Mother’s Day,” Biden said before the start of a closed-door meeting between the two first ladies. “I thought it was important to show the Ukrainian people that this war had to stop, that this war was brutal, and that the people of the United States stand with the people of Ukraine.”
Zelenska praised Biden for his “extremely brave act” in coming to Ukraine.
“We understand what it takes for a First Lady of the United States to come here during a war when military actions happen every day, sirens go off every day, even today,” she said in Ukrainian through an interpreter.
Biden’s unannounced visit came amid a four-day swing across Eastern Europe for the first lady – her highest diplomatic engagement since President Biden took office. Ukraine entered the day before Russia’s Victory Day, which some officials fear will bring a new, more violent phase of the war.
Former First Ladies have made foreign visits in support of US forces stationed abroad, but few have visited an active war zone on their own. In 2005, Laura Bush traveled alone to Kabul, where she met women who were training to be teachers and gave gifts to Afghan children on the streets. Bush returned to Afghanistan in 2008.
Jill Biden’s trip to this region comes at a high-risk moment in US foreign policy, with the United States playing a leading role in military conflict and the global humanitarian response. The invasion marks the moment of the highest tension between the United States and Russia since the end of the Cold War.
A US official said Biden and Zelenska had exchanged correspondence in the past few weeks.
At a school here in Uzhhorod, the two women walked into a classroom and sat down at a table with children working on their mothers’ art projects. Children were making bears out of cardboard and tissue paper, which is the symbol of the Zakarpattia region.
Biden’s trip to Ukraine follows two high-profile visits by US leaders in recent weeks. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) led a congressional delegation to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky late last month, following a trip by Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
President Biden has not traveled to Ukraine since the war began, with his aides noting privately the security challenges a visit might pose. In March, he visited the Polish city of Rzeszow, which is about 60 miles from the Ukrainian border.
Biden and other G7 leaders were scheduled to have a video call with Zelensky later on Sunday. A White House official said the leaders intended to discuss Russia’s ongoing invasion and how the G7 countries could continue to support Ukraine and impose costs on Moscow.
Before crossing the border, Jill Biden visited a bus station in Kosice, Slovakia, where local officials and NGOs have set up a refugee processing center. Biden heard emotional stories from refugees who fled Ukraine but expressed a strong desire to return to their homeland.
Victoria Kotocha, a mother of three whose husband remained in Ukraine to fight in the army, told Biden about her trip to Slovakia and her anger at Russia’s explanation for her invasion.
“They’re coming to our land,” she told Biden. “They are killing us, but they say we are protecting you.”
Kotocha, hugging her 7-year-old daughter Yuli, described the difficulty of explaining to her children why they had to leave their home. “It’s impossible,” she said. “I try to keep them safe. It is my job.”
“That doesn’t make sense,” Biden said.
Biden began her journey in Romania, where she met with troops at the Mikhail Kogalniceanu Air Force Base and visited a school in Bucharest that hosts Ukrainian children. Biden will return to Bratislava, Slovakia, on Sunday evening, and on Monday is scheduled to meet with Slovak President Susanna Caputova.