Blinken, Austin meet Zelenskiy in top US show of solidarity
The U.S. announced it would start sending diplomats back to Ukraine and provide more military aid as Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin visited Kyiv late on Sunday night, in the highest-level U.S. visit to the war-torn country since Russia invaded.
American diplomats will return to Ukraine as early as this week, starting with day trips into the western city of Lviv and eventually resuming a presence in Kyiv, according to a senior State Department official. The U.S. officials plan to inform Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy it authorized the sale of $165 million (€154 million) for ammunition in addition to other funds to help the country’s forces especially on the eastern frontier.
On Monday morning in Washington, President Joe Biden plans to formally nominate Bridget Brink, currently the U.S. ambassador to Slovakia, to be its next envoy in Ukraine, the official said.
Earlier, a Zelenskiy adviser, Oleksiy Arestovych, told an interviewer on YouTube that appeared to stream live about 10 p.m. local time that the two top Biden administration officials were talking with Zelenskiy “right now” in the Ukrainian capital. Arestovych said the talks would center on weapons supply and joint policies toward Russia.
The visit comes with the war entering a new phase as Russia shifts its forces to the east and south after failing to take Kyiv or topple Zelenskiy’s government in the early weeks of the conflict. Ukraine has pressured the U.S. and its allies to send more powerful weapons to repel Russia from the eastern Donbas region, where Russian troops are seeking to gain full control of the besieged port of Mariupol.
Ahead of the visit Zelenskiy praised accelerated weapons shipments that he said could help Ukraine step up its counteroffensive, but added the U.S. envoys “should not come here with empty hands.”
Biden last week pledged an additional $1.3 billion (€1.21 billion) in weaponry and economic aid, adding to an $800 million (€745 million) package that included heavy artillery for the first time, as well as additional helicopters. The latest aid shipments will include dozens of howitzers and attack drones.
The U.S. president said, however, he would send a formal request to Congress for more funding needed to keep up shipments of military equipment and weapons to Ukraine. Congressional leaders said they would begin considering the funding package as soon as this week.
U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and other foreign leaders have previously visited Kyiv to show support for the Ukrainian government.
Those trips raised pressure on the U.S. to schedule a visit by President Joe Biden or other senior officials. The White House said earlier there were no plans for Biden to visit. Zelenskiy’s last in-person meeting with a senior U.S. official came on Feb. 19, before Russia’s invasion, with Vice President Kamala Harris in Munich.
With Russian President Vladimir Putin showing no signs of backing down as the conflict enters its third month, the U.S. and European allies have continued to ratchet up sanctions on Moscow and accelerate the delivery of weapons to Ukraine.
At the same time, peace talks between Russia and Ukraine have ground to a halt and the humanitarian situation has grown more dire. The UN’s refugee agency last week said more than 5 million people have fled Ukraine. In Mariupol, which Putin said was effectively under Russian control, Ukrainian officials said about 100,000 people remain, and they accused Russian forces of trying to conceal civilian deaths.
Images of apparent atrocities against civilians in areas around Kyiv prompted Biden to label Putin a “butcher” and a “war criminal” who is guilty of “genocide” against the Ukrainian people. Russia has denied the allegations.
U.S. officials and the European Union have engaged in talks about restricting oil imports from Russia, in order to squeeze off a key financial lifeline for the Russian leader. Options under consideration include an import ban, a price cap and a payment system to withhold revenue that Russia has generated since the start of the war, according to people familiar with the matter.
Biden last month visited U.S. troops stationed in Poland about an hour’s drive from the Ukrainian border during a four-day trip to Europe but he did not cross into Ukraine. The president previously alluded to staff concerns about security as the reason he did not enter Ukraine.
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