MIHAIL KOGALNICEANU AIR BASE, Romania — First lady Jill Biden arrived here Friday for the first stop on a four-day trip to Eastern Europe, serving as an unusually personal emissary from the White House as the United States seeks to reiterate its support for NATO allies, especially those nearest Russia’s war zone in Ukraine.
The trip marks Jill Biden’s highest-profile diplomatic engagement since her husband became president, visiting a region that remains on edge from Russia’s invasion and fearful it could be next. During her trip, the first lady planned to meet with Slovakia’s president, Romanian and Slovak educators, and refugees who have fled Ukraine since Russia invaded more than two months ago.
Biden began her visit Friday with a stop at the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, where she greeted U.S. and NATO military officials and helped Army commanders serve macaroni and cheese and potatoes to American troops stationed here.
One U.S. service member introduced himself to the first lady as hailing from Pennsylvania, where Jill Biden was raised, adding that he attended the University of Delaware. “I’m a Blue Hen, too!” she said, referring to the mascot of the university from which she received her doctorate. “So is my husband.”
The air base, a Romanian installation that hosts U.S. and NATO troops, has nearly tripled in size, to about 2,700 personnel, since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the first lady arrived with supplies in hand. Her team had received word that the base was running low on ketchup, so they brought about five gallons of it on their plane, and Biden herself entered the dining area holding two bottles of ketchup.
After cutting a cake decorated with an American flag, which had been made to commemorate the first lady’s visit, Biden joined Staff Sgt. Sharon Rogers to record a video of the two of them reading “Night Catch,” a children’s book, to Rogers’s young son, Nathan. Biden had facilitated the reading through Joining Forces, her initiative to support military families, and United Through Reading, which connects military families with deployed service members through video recordings and virtual book readings.
Previous first ladies have also made overseas visits to support U.S. troops stationed abroad, but Biden’s trip to the edge of a hot war zone comes at a particularly high-stakes moment in U.S. foreign policy, with the Biden administration playing a central role in the military conflict and global humanitarian response. The invasion marks the moment of highest U.S.-Russia tension since the end of the Cold War.
One of America’s top goals has been to reassure its fellow NATO members that it would protect them should the war spill outside Ukraine’s borders, and to emphasize to Moscow that it would respond directly to an assault on a NATO member, in contrast to the indirect aid it is providing Ukraine. Article 5 of the NATO treaty compels members to come to one another’s aid if attacked.
President Biden visited Poland in March in his own effort to provide reassurance to countries on NATO’s eastern flank. During that visit, he ad-libbed a line at the end of a speech suggesting that he wanted Russian President Vladimir Putin to be removed from office, saying, “For God’s sake, this man cannot remain in power.” The White House quickly clarified that Biden was not advocating a policy of regime change.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have visited Ukraine itself, and several heads of state — including the leaders of the Czech Republic, Poland and Slovenia — have visited Kyiv during the conflict. But so far, President Biden has not visited Ukraine, as aides privately cite the security challenges that would pose.
The United States has sent billions of dollars in military assistance and humanitarian aid to the beleaguered country, and the president last week asked Congress for an additional $33 billion to support Ukraine against Russia, which has launched the largest land war in Europe since World War II.
This is Jill Biden’s second solo overseas trip since the start of the administration. Last summer, she led the U.S. delegation to the Tokyo Olympics for the Opening Ceremonies. “It’s so important to the president and to me that the Ukrainian people know that we stand with them,” Biden told reporters in Washington before she boarded her flight to Europe.
On Saturday, the first lady will visit the U.S. Embassy in Bucharest for a humanitarian briefing from United Nations agencies, humanitarian groups and the Romanian government. She will then meet Romania’s first lady, Carmen Iohannis, who, like Biden, continues to teach English while her husband serves as the head of state.
The first lady will also visit a public school in Bucharest hosting Ukrainian refugee students and attend a listening session with the Romanian minister of education.
She will travel to Kosice, Slovakia, on Sunday to celebrate Mother’s Day with mothers and children before visiting the Slovakia-Ukraine border crossing in Vysne Nemecke. Biden will tour refugee processing centers and meet with aid workers and refugees. She will also visit a Greek Catholic chapel that serves refugees, volunteers and first responders.
Millions of refugees have fled Ukraine as Russia’s military has waged a brutal war that Biden has declared a genocide. The U.S. government has not officially adopted that term, which requires an extensive review process, but U.S. officials are assisting the international community in ongoing war-crimes investigations.
The first lady will conclude her trip Monday at the presidential palace in Bratislava, where she will meet Slovakian President Zuzana Caputova.
Ashley Biden, the president and first lady’s daughter, was initially scheduled to join her mother on the trip, but she dropped out after she was notified of a close contact with an individual who tested positive for the coronavirus. She tested negative, but she was advised by a White House physician not to travel with the first lady, according to a White House spokesman.
Ashley Biden attended the White House correspondents’ dinner last weekend and several related parties. A number of White House officials and journalists have contracted the virus since those gatherings.
Jill Biden will be joined for the Romania portion of the trip by Mark Gitenstein, the ambassador to the European Union and a longtime Biden aide and friend. Gitenstein served as U.S. ambassador to Romania during the Obama administration.
Biden will travel closer to the conflict than her husband did during his trip to Europe in March, when he visited Rzeszow, Poland, about 60 miles from the Ukrainian border. But in recent weeks, a number of top U.S. officials have traveled to Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.
The highest-ranking official to make the trip was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who made a surprise visit to Ukraine last Saturday. She and a half-dozen other lawmakers met with Zelensky and his top aides for three hours late Saturday, expressing American solidarity with Ukraine and seeking a firsthand assessment of the conditions as she hoped to steer President Biden’s massive new Ukraine aid package through Congress.
“Our commitment is to be there for you until the fight is done,” Pelosi told Zelensky. “We are on a frontier of freedom, and your fight is a fight for everyone.”