Blinken says US arms will make a difference as Ukraine reels from new Russian offensive

ByMATTHEW LEE AP logo
Tuesday, May 14, 2024 3:40PM
Blinken arrives in Kyiv to reassure Ukraine of US support
Blinken arrives in Kyiv to reassure Ukraine of US support

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Tuesday that American military aid on its way to Ukraine would make a "real difference" on the battlefield, as the top diplomat made an unannounced visit to Kyiv to reassure an ally facing a fierce new Russian offensive.

In increasingly intense attacks along the northeastern border in recent days, Moscow's troops have captured around 100 to 125 square kilometers (40 to 50 square miles) in the Kharkiv region that includes at least seven villages, according to open-source monitoring analysts. Though most of those villages were already depopulated, thousands of civilians in the area have fled the fighting.

The Kremlin's forces have also been making a concerted push in the east, seeking to drive deeper into the partly occupied Donetsk region. The main focus of Russian attacks Tuesday was Pokrovsk, just inside the Ukrainian border in Donetsk, where the Kremlin's forces launched 24 assaults, the Ukrainian general staff said in a report.

Analysts have called this moment one of the most dangerous for Ukraine since Russia's full-scale invasion in February 2022 - and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy asked Tuesday for more air defense systems to protect civilians under Russian fire in the northeast.

"We know this is a challenging time," Blinken said in the Ukrainian capital where he met with Zelenskyy. But he added that American military aid is "going to make a real difference against the ongoing Russian aggression on the battlefield."

The visit comes less than a month after Congress approved a long-delayed foreign assistance package that sets aside $60 billion in aid for Ukraine, much of which will go toward replenishing badly depleted artillery and air defense systems.

Some of that "is now on the way," Blinken said, and some has already arrived in Ukraine.

Moscow's renewed offensive in the northeastern region of Kharkiv is the most significant border incursion since the early days of the war - and comes after months when the roughly 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) front line barely budged.

More than 7,500 civilians have been evacuated from the area, according to authorities. At the same time, the Kremlin's forces are expanding their push to the northern border regions of Sumy and Chernihiv, Ukrainian officials say, and Kyiv's outgunned and outnumbered soldiers are struggling to hold them back.

Troops fought street to street on the outskirts of Vovchansk, among the largest towns in the Kharkiv area, regional Gov. Oleh Syniehubov said on national television. Two civilians were killed in Russian shelling Tuesday, he said.

The U.N. human rights office said the battles are taking a heavy toll.

"We are deeply concerned at the plight of civilians in Ukraine," Liz Throssell, spokeswoman for the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in Geneva. "In the Kharkiv region, the situation is dire."

Zelenskyy thanked Blinken for the U.S. aid - but added that more is necessary, including two Patriot air defense systems urgently needed to protect Kharkiv.

"The people are under attack: civilians, warriors, everybody. They're under Russian missiles," he said.

Artillery, air defense interceptors and long-range ballistic missiles have already been delivered, some of them already to the front lines, said a senior U.S. official traveling with the secretary on an overnight train from Poland who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity ahead of Blinken's meetings.

Ahead of the trip, U.S. officials noted that since President Joe Biden signed the aid package late last month, the administration has already announced $1.4 billion in short-term military assistance and $6 billion in longer-term support.

Blinken, on his fourth trip to Kyiv since Russian troops rolled over the border, told Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal that the U.S. intends to support Kyiv beyond the war's end.

"The United States is determined, determined to help Ukraine succeed, succeed both in the battlefield victory but also succeed, as we would say, in winning the peace and building the strongest possible Ukraine," Blinken said.

The administration is "trying to really accelerate the tempo" of U.S. weapon shipments, said national security adviser Jake Sullivan.

But delays in U.S. assistance, particularly since the Israel-Hamas war began and has preoccupied top administration officials, have triggered deep concerns in Kyiv and Europe. Blinken, for example, has visited the Middle East seven times since the war in Gaza began in October. His last trip to Kyiv was in September.

Blinken went with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba for lunch at a Kyiv pizza restaurant founded by Ukrainian veterans, pronouncing it "superb." On Blinken's last visit, the pair ate at a recently reopened McDonald's restaurant.

The secretary of state was due to give a speech later Tuesday extolling Ukraine's "strategic successes" in the war. It is intended to complement a Blinken address last year in Helsinki, Finland, deriding Putin for Moscow's strategic failures in launching the war.

Since the Helsinki speech, however, Russia has intensified its attacks, most noticeably as the U.S. House of Representatives sat on the aid package for months without action, forcing a suspension in the provision of most U.S. assistance. Those attacks have increased in recent weeks as Russia has sought to take advantage of Ukrainian shortages in manpower and weapons while the new assistance is in transit.

Meanwhile, Russian President Vladimir Putin plans to make a two-day state visit to China this week, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. Beijing has backed Moscow politically in the war and has sent machine tools, electronics and other items seen as contributing to the Russian war effort, without actually exporting weaponry.

"A strong, successful, thriving, free Ukraine is the best possible rebuke to Putin and the best possible guarantor for your future," Blinken told Zelenskyy in Kyiv.

The senior U.S. official said despite some recent setbacks, Ukraine could still claim significant victories. Those include reclaiming some 50% of the territory Russian forces took in the early months of the war, boosting its economic standing and improving transportation and trade links, not least through military successes in the Black Sea.