President Joe Biden visited U.S. troops stationed near Poland’s border with Ukraine on Friday and was getting a first hand look at the growing humanitarian response to the millions of Ukrainians who are fleeing to Poland to escape Russia’s assault on their homeland.
Biden’s first stop was with members of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, visiting a barber shop and dining facility set up for the troops, where he invited himself to sit down and share some pizza. The Americans are serving alongside Polish troops.
He arrived Friday afternoon at the airport in Rzeszow, the largest city in southeastern Poland, where some U.S. troops are based.
With the troops, he shared an anecdote about visiting his late son, Beau Biden, while he was deployed in Baghdad and going by his mother’s maiden name so as not to draw attention to himself. The president jokingly razzed one service member about his standard-issue short haircut and seriously praised the troops, too.
“You are the finest fighting force in the world and that’s not hyperbole,” Biden said before sitting down on a folding chair to eat with the group.
He later addressed a group of soldiers in more formal remarks, telling them the nation “owes you big.” Biden also borrowed the words of the late Secretary of State Madeline Albright to underscore their place in a fragile moment for the U.S. and its European allies.
“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 midst of a fight between democracy and an an oligarch.”
He will be in Warsaw on Saturday for talks with Polish President Andrzej Duda and others. The Polish leader was to welcome Biden at the airport on Friday, but his plane was delayed by a technical problem.
The European Union says some 3.5 million Ukrainians — half of them children — have fled the country, with more than 2.2 million ending up in Poland.
The U.S. Congress this month approved spending more than $13 billion on humanitarian and military assistance for Ukraine. The administration has begun allocating those funds.
White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Biden will hear directly from the American troops and humanitarian experts about the situation on the ground and “what further steps need to be taken to make sure that we’re investing” U.S. dollars in the right place.
Biden, who spent Thursday lobbying U.S. allies to stay united against Russia, speculated that what he sees in Poland “will 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.”
Speaking in Brussels after meetings with other world leaders, Biden said he had visited many war zones and refugee camps during his political career and “it’s devastating” to see young children without parents or men and women with blank looks on their faces wondering, “My God, where am I? What’s going to happen to me?”
He said Poland, Romania and Germany shouldn’t be left on their own to deal with the largest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.
“This is an international responsibility,” Biden said shortly after he announced $1 billion in additional assistance to help Ukrainian refugees. He also announced that the United States would take in up to 100,000 of those refugees. The White House has said most Ukrainian refugees eventually want to return home.
Biden said the United States is obligated to be “engaged and do all we can to ease the suffering and pain of innocent women and children and men” who make it across the border.
He said, “I plan on attempting to see those folks … I hope I get to see a lot of people.”
Some refugees interviewed Friday at the train station in Przemysl, Poland, said they hoped to eventually return to Ukraine. They also weren’t very hopeful about Biden’s visit.
“For sure I do not have any expectations” about Biden, said a tearful Ira Satula, 32, from Kremenchug. Satula was grateful for all the support and Poland’s warm reception.
“But home is home, and I hope we’ll be there soon,” Satula said.
Olga Antonovna, 68, from Chernigov, said “it’s really 50-50” that Biden will help enough.
“I think that we needed help a long time ago, long before,” she said.
Sullivan said Biden will give a speech Saturday on “the stakes of this moment, the urgency of the challenge that lies ahead, what the conflict in Ukraine means for the world.”