Joe Biden has visited the Polish town of Rzeszów, about an hour’s drive from the Ukrainian border, in a symbolic show of support for eastern European states that are seeing Russian aggression wreak havoc in their neighbourhood.
During the visit, which the White House had kept under wraps until shortly before his arrival, the American leader got a first-hand look at international efforts to help the over 2 million Ukrainian refugees who have found temporary shelter from war in their country in Poland , and met US troops bolstering Nato’s eastern flank.
Air Force One touched down at Rzeszów-Jasionka airport in Poland’s south-east shortly after 2pm local time. Rzeszów is about 105 miles (170km) from Lviv, the city that could become the de facto capital of Ukraine if Kyiv falls to Russian forces.
Wearing a black mask, the US president was greeted by Polish defense minister Mariusz Błaszczak and a host of military generals – though not President Andrzej Duda, whose plane from Warsaw was turned back en route to Rzeszow and had to make an emergency landing due to technical problems. An official in his office said Duda had not been in any danger.
With the schedule of the visit flipped upside down, Biden first visited a barber shop at the G2A Arena next to the airport, where 14 US soldiers were sitting in folding chairs awaiting their crew cuts. At the adjacent cafeteria, a tie-less US president joined service members tucking into a pizza lunch at six long tables.
Over a slice of pepperoni and jalapeño pizza, Biden regaled the paratroopers with stories about his late son Beau’s deployment in Iraq and his family in Ireland.
He later addressed a group of soldiers in more formal remarks, quoting the late secretary of state Madeleine Albright to underscore their significance of Nato’s role in the current crisis.
“The secretary of state used to have an expression. She said, ‘We are the essential nation,’” Biden told the troops. “I don’t want to sound philosophical here, but you are in the midst of a fight between democracy and an oligarch.”
The 5,000-strong first main body of America’s elite 82nd Airborne Division, which specializes in parachute assault operations, has been based in Poland since 6 February this year.
The US troops’ presence in the area has been low-key, with them carrying out visits to orphanages and the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp site rather than displays of military strength visible to the local population.
After his meeting with the military, Biden was due to be briefed on the humanitarian situation on the Ukraine border by Samantha Power, the director of the United States Agency for International Development.
Poland has taken in more refugees from Ukraine than any other state in Europe, with the United Nations estimating their numbers at least 2.2 million.
On Friday evening Biden was due to fly to Warsaw, where he was to meet Duda on Saturday, and give what has been previewed as a “significant speech” on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, told press on the way to Poland that Biden’s address would “speak to the stakes of this moment, of the urgency of the challenge that lies ahead, what the conflict in Ukraine means for the world, and why it is so important that the free world to stay in unity and resolve in the face of Russian aggression”.
Biden and Duda are expected to discuss Warsaw’s wish for more US troops bolstering Nato’s eastern flank, as well as the idea of an international peacekeeping mission proposed by the leader of Poland’s ruling party, Jarosław Kaczynski. US diplomats have voiced skepticism about the idea, which Russia’s foreign minister Lavrov has criticized as “very reckless”.
Biden told reporters in Brussels on Thursday that his visit to eastern Europe was designed to “reinforce my commitment to have the United States make sure we are a major piece of dealing with the relocation of all those folks, as well as humanitarian assistance needed both inside Ukraine and outside Ukraine”.
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism