WARSAW, Poland — President Joe Biden on Friday traveled to southeastern Poland where he met with U.S. troops and aid workers assisting refugees in a country on the front lines of the humanitarian and military crisis unfolding in Ukraine.
“What you’re engaged in is much more than just whether or not you can alleviate the pain and suffering of the people in Ukraine. We’re in a new phase, your generation, we’re at an inflection point,” Biden told the troops.
Biden spoke with the U.S. troops in Rzeszow who began arriving at the military base there last month as part of U.S. deterrence efforts against Russia. The president made small talk and shook hands with a group of service members, whom he called the “finest fighting force in the history of the world," at one point sitting down to join them for a slice of pizza in the mess hall.
"You are the organizing principle around which the rest of the world, the free world, is moving," Biden said. "We’re in the midst of, and I don’t want to sound too philosophic here, but you’re in the midst of a fight between democracies and oligarchs."
The troops are based less than 100 miles from where Russian missiles struck a Ukrainian military post this month. The service members have been carrying out training exercises with their Polish and British counterparts, familiarizing themselves with the local terrain and Polish equipment.
The White House has firmly ruled out any possibility of sending U.S. troops to Ukraine, but has been bolstering the U.S. troop presence in Europe over the last two months to demonstrate Washington's commitment to defending NATO territory.
Before he returns to Washington on Saturday, Biden will meet with Ukrainian refugees, followed by a major address on the state of the war in Ukraine and where he sees it heading, national security adviser Jake Sullivan said Friday.
In a meeting with aid workers, Biden said he regretted that he wasn't able to travel to Ukraine to see the situation first hand, seeming to indicate it wouldn't be safe for him to enter the war-torn country.
Biden was joined in his meeting with aid workers by Polish President Andrzej Duda, who thanked the American leader for his visit and the help the U.S. has provided. But Duda said there is more help Poland needs. Biden and Duda will meet again Saturday.
“The suffering that’s taking place now is at your doorstep," Biden said.
Poland has borne the brunt of the refugee crisis, with more than 2 million Ukrainians having flooded into the country. While Poland has welcomed the refugees with open arms, allowing them to work, and providing them with health care and schooling for children, the massive influx in just a month has begun to strain cities like Warsaw, where the population is estimated to have grown by 300,000.
“Poland is among the top countries that feel the most at risk over this ongoing invasion. You had bombs going off not far from their border,” said Barry Pavel, who was a defense policy adviser in the administrations of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. “This is a really, really important stop.”
Biden is visiting Poland after a series of meetings with world leaders Thursday in Brussels, where he sought to rally other countries to do more to support Ukraine and punish Russia.
Before departing Belgium, Biden noted how Putin has used Russia’s energy resources to “coerce” its neighbors, and announced measures — alongside European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen — to reduce Europe's dependency on Russian energy.
“I know that eliminating Russian gas will have costs for Europe. But it’s not only the right thing to do from a moral standpoint, it’s going to put us on a much stronger strategic footing,” he said before heading to Poland.
On Saturday, Biden also plans to deliver an address about the need for sustained unity and resolve in the face of the Russian aggression, Sullivan said.
The White House announced it would allow as many as 100,000 Ukrainians to enter the U.S., with a focus on those who are most vulnerable. The administration also plans to allocate more than $1 billion toward humanitarian assistance and $11 billion over the next five years to address worldwide food security threats after the disruptions to the Russian and Ukrainian agricultural industries.
The U.S. has provided $123 million to help the countries bordering Ukraine deal with the crisis, including $48 million to Poland, with U.S. officials working to set up programs that provide refugees with temporary assistance for food, accommodations and medical care, along with legal aid and mental health support, the White House said.
The White House on Thursday announced a package of new sanctions against Russia that would apply to more than 400 Russians and Russian entities, including the Duma and more than 300 of its members and more than 40 defense companies.
It also said it would take additional steps to prevent Russia from trying to prop up its economy, such as making it clear that any transactions involving gold related to banks there are prohibited, and calling on corporations to no longer conduct their activities with Russia in a business-as-usual manner.