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First lady Jill Biden visits Ukraine in rare trip to war zone

The unannounced visit enhanced the role she has carved out on the issue that has dominated and reshaped American foreign policy over the past three months.

First lady Jill Biden visited Ukraine on May 8 to call for an end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Video: The Washington Post)
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UZHHOROD, Ukraine — First lady Jill Biden crossed the border into Ukraine on Sunday, traveling to an active war zone in a rare move for the spouse of a sitting president.

Biden entered the country from Slovakia on Mother’s Day and met Ukraine’s first lady, Olena Zelenska, who had not appeared in public since the Russian invasion began Feb. 24.

“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 has to stop, and this war has been brutal, and that the people of the United States stand with the people of Ukraine.”

Zelenska praised Biden “for a very courageous act” in coming to Ukraine.

“We understand what it takes for the U.S. first lady to come here during a war when the military actions are taking place every day, where the air sirens are happening every day, even today,” she said in Ukrainian through an interpreter.

The unannounced visit came amid a four-day swing through Eastern Europe for Biden — her highest-profile diplomatic engagement since President Biden took office and part of a broader effort to show continued U.S. support for Ukraine.

For Jill Biden, a trip into Ukraine — stopping in a country that neither President Biden nor Vice President Harris visited during their recent trips to the region — enhanced the role she has carved out on the issue that has dominated and reshaped American foreign policy over the past three months.

And she did it while focusing on her priorities: education, military families and mental health. A longtime educator, she visited schools in each of the three countries she traveled to, met with troops at a military base and emphasized the need for mental health services for refugees during her humanitarian visits and briefings.

Her visit to Ukraine came the day before Russia’s Victory Day, which some U.S. officials worry will bring a new, even more violent phase of the war. It also followed fresh attacks in eastern Ukraine, where an official said Russian forces bombed a school that was serving as a shelter, leaving as many as 60 people buried under the rubble and feared dead.

Previous first ladies made overseas visits to support U.S. troops stationed abroad, but few have visited an active war zone on their own. Laura Bush twice traveled solo to Kabul, in 2005 and 2008, and during the first trip, she met with women who were training to be teachers and gave presents to Afghan children on the street.

The first lady has no official constitutional duties and has largely served a ceremonial role. But in taking an active role in her husband’s presidency, Jill Biden is fulfilling a vision for the role that she has contemplated for decades.

In July 1987, she strolled to a podium in Des Moines, a stack of papers in her hand, and looked out into the crowded room as she outlined what, in her mind, makes a good first lady.

“There is no one specific right role,” she said. “But there is one objective: And that is to make Americans feel proud of their first lady and to feel that in some way she is a reflection of their lives and their values.”

Her remarks came as her husband was running his first presidential campaign. Now, nearly 35 years later, she has been a central figure in the White House, acting as a key fundraiser, a campaign surrogate — and now as a high-profile emissary to a war-torn country.

Biden has identified herself as a military mom, an educator and a defender of her husband, who often introduces himself not as the president of the United States but as: “Jill Biden’s husband.”

The only first lady to have kept her professional career after her husband entered the White House — continuing to teach at a community college — has made clear that she has a second job, too, one that for now is attempting to showcase empathy and understanding in the most dire of circumstances.

She has worn a mask decorated with a sunflower, the official flower of Ukraine, and during the State of the Union address she had the flower embroidered onto the right sleeve of her dress.

“I talk to Joe every day about what’s going on in Ukraine,” she said in March, launching a campaign push for the midterms. “And I want you to know that he is working tirelessly to bring people together, to bring the NATO countries together, so that they can stand up against Putin.”

Each morning, she recounted during an earlier fundraiser, she turns on the television, praying that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky is still alive. Each night, the sleeping is not always easy.

“The phone just never stops ringing, all through the night,” she said. “And Joe is up, trying to help solve this crisis.”

The course of the conflict is impossible to determine, she said during a San Francisco fundraiser in March.

“We just don’t know,” she said. “And we’re all just holding our breath, aren’t we? That something, some answer will come so that we don’t get into this world war.”

“It’s unbelievable, right?” she added. “To think that that could happen in our lifetime.”

Her visit Sunday with Zelenska follows correspondence between the two first ladies over the last few weeks, said Michael LaRosa, a spokesman for the first lady. He said Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S., gave Biden a letter from Zelenska at the March 1 State of the Union address, which Markarova attended as one of Biden’s guests.

Zelenska sent another letter to Biden in April expressing concern about the long-term effects that the war will have on Ukrainian children, soldiers and families, LaRosa said.

Here in Uzhhorod at a school now being used as temporary housing for displaced Ukrainians, the first ladies held a roughly 30-minute private meeting, during which Zelenska said the mental health of Ukrainians was her biggest worry, LaRosa said.

The two women then visited a classroom and sat down at a table with children working on art projects for their mothers. The children were crafting cardboard and tissue paper bears, representing the symbol of the Zakarpattia oblast, where the school is located.

Biden’s trip to Ukraine follows two high-profile visits from American leaders in recent weeks. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) led a congressional delegation to Kyiv to meet with Zelensky late last month, following a trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin.

Biden’s visit came the same day that Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau traveled to Kyiv to meet Zelensky and Bono, the lead singer of the rock band U2 who performed in a subway station turned bomb shelter there.

Back in Wilmington, Del., Joe Biden joined other Group of Seven leaders on video call with Zelensky. The leaders of the world’s biggest economies announced Sunday they would phase out the use of Russian oil and gas. The United States has already banned Russian oil, gas and coal, but many European countries have been more gradual in whittling down their heavy reliance on Russian resources. The leaders did not specify a timeline for the bans.

Before crossing the border, Jill Biden visited a bus station in Kosice, Slovakia, where local officials and nongovernmental organizations have set up a refugee processing center. The first lady heard emotional stories from refugees who fled Ukraine but still expressed a strong desire to return to their home country.

Victoria Kutocha, a mother of three whose husband remained in Ukraine to fight in the military, told Biden of her journey to Slovakia and her outrage at Russia’s explanation for its invasion.

“They come to our land,” she told Biden. “They kill us, but they say we protect you.”

Hugging her 7-year-old daughter, Yulie, Kutocha 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’s my mission.”

“It’s senseless,” Biden said.

Biden began her trip in Romania, where she met troops at the Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base and visited a school in Bucharest hosting Ukrainian children. On Monday, she is slated to meet with Slovakian President Zuzana Caputova in Bratislava.

But it was her unannounced trip to Ukraine on Mother’s Day that best illustrated how Biden sees her role as the nation’s first lady.

“Maybe it’s Jill Biden’s calling to meet with children who had education disrupted, their housing and basic wants and needs disrupted,” said Katherine Jellison, a professor at Ohio University whose research has focused on first ladies. “Maybe she sees this as an extension of her role as educator.”

During Biden’s remarks in Iowa that day in 1987, she said that she would hope that she could continue teaching part-time if she became first lady, something that she has continued to do now.

“My own personal view is that the first lady should respond to the concerns and interests of today’s American women,” she said. “Women who are mothers, who are spouses and who are wage earners. Women who are struggling to balance all three roles. And I think that they would identify with a first lady who is also trying to balance those three roles.”

Viser reported from Washington.

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