US President Joe Biden saw the Ukrainian refugee crisis in Poland first-hand on Friday during the final leg of his European trip after finishing diplomatic talks in Brussels on the war with Russia.
Mr Biden landed in Rzeszow, less than 80 kilometres from Ukraine, where he was briefed by aid workers on how more than 2.2 million people have flooded over the border into Poland — more than half of the total who have left Ukraine.
With Polish officials lobbying for humanitarian help, Mr Biden met his counterpart Andrzej Duda in Rzeszow after he announced the US would offer $1 billion in relief for people affected by the war.
“I'm here in Poland to see first-hand the humanitarian crisis,” said Mr Biden, who claimed to be disappointed that his staff would not allow him to enter Ukraine itself. “The suffering that's taking place now is at your doorstep.
Speaking to US troops, Mr Biden said: “The Ukrainian people have a lot of backbone, have a lot of guts and I'm sure you're observing it.
“And I don't mean just the military, which we've been training since when Russia moved into south-east Ukraine, but also the average citizen — look at how they're stepping up.”
Mr Biden travelled from Brussels after a guest appearance at a European Union summit, during which leaders agreed to establish a solidarity fund for aid and reconstruction in Ukraine.
After landing in Poland, he shared a pizza with US soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division, after the Pentagon increased its troop presence in the country as part of Nato’s efforts to deter a wider Russian attack on its eastern flank.
Poland has called for that US deployment to be increased even further as Russia's attack on Ukraine, and Belarus's ever closer ties to the Kremlin, raise alarm bells in Moscow's former sphere of influence.
Jake Sullivan, Mr Biden's national security adviser, said the US and its allies were making contingency plans for any Russian aggression after the president repeatedly said that “every inch” of the bloc would be defended.
After his appearance in Rzeszow, Mr Biden will travel to the capital Warsaw and hold talks with Mr Duda before returning to Washington.
Poland this month offered to lend the US its fleet of Soviet-era MiG-29 aircraft but the Pentagon said the idea of a transfer to the Ukrainian air force was impractical and could be seen as an escalation.
The government in Warsaw is also calling for tougher sanctions on Russia including an energy embargo and a ban on freight transport by road.
The White House had kept Mr Biden’s itinerary a secret until early on Friday. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a stop in Rzeszow in early March to visit US embassy staff who were working to help both Ukrainians and stranded Americans.
Mr Biden said in Brussels that his visit would “reinforce my commitment to have the United States make sure we are a major piece of dealing with the relocation” of people who have left Ukraine.
He announced on Thursday that the US would take in up to 100,000 Ukrainians who have fled the country, with a focus on people who have relatives already living in America.
But he said he did not expect his exposure to the human suffering of the war to change his mind on the mainly defensive stance that the US and its allies have taken on the war.
“I’ve been to many, many war zones,” he said.