Sharing a slice of a pizza and a selfie with US soldiers, a smiling US president Joe Biden paid a symbolic visit on Friday to Rzeszów, in Poland’s southeast, a wartime frontline city twice over.
A month after Russia’s invasion, Rzeszów, 80km from the Ukrainian border, has become a key reception centre for weary refugees. Now the city’s international airport is becoming a principal hub for western humanitarian and military aid into Ukraine.
Early last month, as Russia massed troops on Ukraine’s border, Biden deployed 1,700 members of the 82nd Airborne Division to Rzeszów as part of a wider deployment to Poland and Romania.
Just after 2pm on Friday, he dropped into the city’s local stadium to say hello: first to a makeshift military barbershop and then on to a canteen where US paratroopers were enjoying a pizza lunch, with the compliments of the White House.
“Well, if you’re starting to eat, I’m going to sit down and have something to eat,” said Biden, slipping in to grab a slice of pepperoni and jalapeno.
Not a wise choice: the chilli made his eyes water and, dabbing his eyes with a napkin between sips of water, he began telling his captive audience an anecdote about his Irish great grandfather, Edward Blewitt, son of parents from Ballina.
Turning to the war an hour’s drive away in Ukraine, Biden expressed his thanks to the paratroopers “for all you do” and called the US military “the finest fighting force in the history of the world”.
“This is not hyperbole,” he said several times during the 20-minute lunch at a table filled with pizza and US chocolate treats, the latter carrying the US presidential seal.
This all-American encounter was supposed to be a bilateral affair with his Polish counterpart, Andrzej Duda. But an emergency landing of the Polish presidential jet meant Duda was delayed and not in Rzezów to meet his guest at Jasionka airport.
Locals living nearby say they have seen a steady shift in recent weeks away from colourful commercial airliners from Brussels and London. Now the skies are dominated by bulky grey military transport planes, landing and leaving in rapid succession.
Already these planes were bringing food and military supplies into Ukraine’s conflict-hit eastern regions. On Thursday, Nato leaders indicated they would add more high-tech equipment to deliveries, meaning this Polish town of 200,000 has gained new strategic significance. When the history of Russia’s war in Ukraine is written, the Rzezów airlift – and Biden’s visit on Friday – will be part of the story.
After lunch with US paratroopers, Biden visited the local refugee reception centre. In just one month, more than 3.6 million people have fled Ukraine, according to the United Nations, and 60 per cent – 2.24 million by Friday – have arrived in Poland, where Rzeszów lies on one of the main arteries to Krakow.
Refugees vs guests
Before arriving, Biden promised “humanitarian assistance needed both inside and outside Ukraine” and to arrange the relocation of 100,000 Ukrainians to the US. That was a response to a Polish request two weeks ago to visiting vice-president Kamala Harris, to speed up and simplify procedures allowing Ukrainians to join family members in the US.
Finally joining the US president, Duda insisted his fellow Poles viewed the new arrivals “not as refugees, they’re our guests”.
“I would like to thank all my compatriots who have opened their hearts and opened their homes to our neighbours and brothers from Ukraine, who are in a difficult position today, who are in need today,” he said.
The Polish president said Biden’s presence “sends a great signal and is evidence of unity” among western allies
US national security adviser Jake Sullivan, travelling with Biden, said the president was visiting a “frontline and very vulnerable ally”.
Poland had not just “taken the brunt of the humanitarian impact” of the refugee flows from Ukraine, he said, it had also assisted the US surge to “defend and shore up the eastern flank” of Nato.
Polish officials will be listening closely on Saturday to Biden’s address at Warsaw’s rebuilt royal palace. After a history burdened with betrayals and occupation, Poles are anxious for Biden to underline and strengthen security assurances already made – that the US will defend “every inch” of Nato territory.