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Jill Biden heads to Romania and Slovakia to show support for NATO and Ukraine

First lady Jill Biden waves during a commissioning ceremony for a submarine at the Port of Wilmington in Wilmington, Del. on Apr. 2, 2022.
Carolyn Kaster
First lady Jill Biden waves during a commissioning ceremony for a submarine at the Port of Wilmington in Wilmington, Del. on Apr. 2, 2022.

First Lady Jill Biden will spend Mother's Day along the Slovakia-Ukraine border, meeting with Ukrainian mothers and children who fled their country after Russia's invasion.

Biden will also tour schools that have taken in Ukrainian refugees and meet with U.S. troops stationed along NATO's eastern flank during a four-day visit to Romania and Slovakia.

The two NATO allies border Ukraine. They have each taken in hundreds of thousands of refugees, and also served as staging grounds for NATO's military support for Ukraine.

Biden is the latest in a long line of high-profile U.S. officials to show support for Ukraine and the U.S.' NATO allies by visiting Eastern Europe. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin all visited Ukraine in recent weeks. Biden met with Ukrainian refugees in Poland in March.

The trip marks Biden's most high-profile moment yet as first lady – a tenure so far marked by Biden's groundbreaking decision to keep her full-time job as a community college professor. It's a classic use of symbolism in the role of first lady, signaling America's commitment by showing up — and bringing the media attention with her.

"[It's] a validation that the United States is not going to forget the Ukrainian people, and also the allied countries that are helping the Ukrainian refugees," said Anita McBride, who heads American University's First Ladies Initiative, and once served as Laura Bush's chief of staff.

Biden arrives in Romania Friday afternoon. She'll visit U.S. and NATO troops at Mihail Kogalniceanu Air Base, serving dinner to servicemembers, among other things. NATO has bulked up the military presence along its eastern flank, in response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine and Russian President Vladimir Putin's persistent warnings the war could escalate into a broader NATO-Russia conflict.

Both Romania and Slovakia joined NATO in 2004, as part of the eastern expansion of the military alliance that Putin has raged against, and routinely cited as part of his justification for attacking Ukraine.

Biden will meet with refugees and aid workers

Biden will tour schools that have taken in Ukrainian refugees, continuing the emphasis on education that has been a defining trait of her time as first lady.

On Sunday, she will head to the Slovakian border town of Vysne Nemecke, to visit one of the many crossings where more than 5 million Ukrainian refugees, mostly women and children, have streamed across the border to escape Russian tanks and missiles.

More than 800,000 refugees have flowed into Romania, according to the United Nations. Slovakia has processed nearly 400,000 displaced Ukrainians.

The trip is Biden's second solo visit to another country as first lady. In 2021, she led the U.S. delegation to the Tokyo Olympics.

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Corrected: May 6, 2022 at 8:00 PM AKDT
This story originally stated incorrectly that 800,000 refugees have settled in Romania and 400,000 were being hosted in Slovakia. Those are the numbers of refugees that have entered Romania and been processed in Slovakia, according to the UN, but some have moved on to third countries.
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.