Jill Biden’s Ukraine trip highlights lack of presidential visit

AP/Susan Walsh
First lady Jill Biden with Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska

First lady Jill Biden’s surprise trip to Ukraine is having an unintended consequence: It is putting attention on the fact that President Biden has yet visit the country amid Russia’s three-month long invasion.  

Biden is definitely not the only one who has not made the trip to Ukraine. 

The leaders of two of the nation’s biggest allies in the war, France and Germany, also haven’t gone.  

But trips to Ukraine to show solidary between its allies and Kyiv are becoming more common. 

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson made a surprise visit in April, walking the streets of Kyiv with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky.  

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau held a joint news conference with Zelensky this week after a visit in which he marked the reopening of the Canadian embassy. 

Plenty of U.S. leaders are also visiting.  

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) led a Democratic delegation earlier this month and met with Biden this week at the White House to discuss it.  

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Llyod Austin have also gone to Ukraine to underscore U.S. support.  

While Pelosi is third in line to the presidency, Jill Biden’s visit was arguably even more dramatic and more of a deeply symbolic showing of U.S. support.  

She slipped across the border of Slovakia to see Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska and mark Mother’s Day. It was the first time Olena Zelensky has been seen in public since the war. It also came at the end of Biden’s substantial four-day trip to eastern Europe, which carved a new role out for the first lady on the global stage. 

The White House this week said there are no plans for the president to go to Ukraine. It also emphasized that while there are security precautions for Jill Biden, the pale to what is necessary for protecting the commander in chief. 

“Their travel is a little bit different – I think you all know from traveling with the president,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki told reporters on Monday when asked if the first lady’s trip changes the calculations about Biden going to Ukraine. “But there’s not a trip currently planned. But, again, he would love to go to Ukraine.” 

Presidential visits to conflict regions throughout history have been largely confined to U.S. military bases.  

But there are no U.S. military bases in Ukraine — or U.S. troops. The Biden administration has been adamant about not deploying U.S. military forces there to avoid a deeper conflict with Russia. 

Biden did visit U.S. troops in Poland, commending their work in training Ukrainian forces. Biden also gave a fiery speech in which he said that Russian President Vladimir Putin should no longer remain in power — remarks the White House had to walk back. 

Zelensky has invited French President Emmanuel Macron to visit, which he has not yet done.  

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz has held off from visiting following Ukraine’s snub of the German president. A Ukrainian diplomat last month said Germany’s President Frank-Walter Steinmeier was not welcome in the country due to his past relations with Russia, and Scholtz has since said the snub “stands in the way” of him traveling to Kyiv.

Todd Belt, a professor and director of political management at George Washington University, said the security issues surrounding a presidential trip to a war-torn country like Ukraine could make a trip very difficult.  

If something happened to Biden, for one thing, it could not only pull the U.S. deeply into a way — it could lead to a nuclear conflict with Moscow. 

“It certainly would be a tremendous thing for President Biden to go over there, however, we have to remember that he is the commander in chief of the U.S. armed forces, if he were to be attacked when he was over there, that would be an attack on the United States and that would invite a response, which could escalate this beyond any point that we would want to,” Belt said. 

MaryAnne Borrelli, presidency scholar at Connecticut College, noted that the first lady going to Ukraine also reflects on the president and the White House as a whole.  

“This is a meeting of a very highly ranked, distinctive, representative of the presidency of the United States with another very highly ranked, distinctive representative of Ukraine,” she said. “The foundational point is that she’s sent because she matters and because the message that she delivers is very complex and very affirming of the United States and of Ukraine.” 

Tags Jill Biden Jill Biden Nancy Pelosi President Biden Presidential visits Ukraine trip

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