Blinken, Austin meets with Zelenskyy in Kiev, a first wartime for top US officials

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin in Washington, DC, on April 11, 2022. NBC News reports that Blinken and Austin slipped into Ukraine on Sunday for an extraordinary wartime meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, giving new promises military and diplomatic support.

Michael McCoy | Afp | Getty Images

Foreign Minister Antony Blinken and Defense Minister Lloyd Austin slipped into Ukraine on Sunday for an extraordinary wartime meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, giving new promises of military and diplomatic support and defying serious concerns about whether the trip was safe.

The trip, the highest US visit since Russia invaded Ukraine on February 24, was designed to show steadfast US support for Ukraine and its defense as the war enters a new, worrying phase that is expected to be marked by a major Russian offensive. in the south and east of Ukraine.

Blinken and Austin were scheduled to meet in Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, for 90 minutes with Zelenskyy, along with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, U.S. officials said. It was not immediately clear whether the visiting Americans held other meetings on the sidelines during their brief entry into the war-torn country.

The visit was shrouded in secrecy, and the U.S. government refused to confirm that it happened until it was over, and Blinken and Austin were safely out of the country – even after Zelenskyy announced the day before that they would be coming. His revelation during a Saturday news conference had taken Washington by surprise, leading to a last-minute fight to determine if it was still safe for them to leave, U.S. officials said.

It is typical that the travels of U.S. presidents and other high-ranking officials in war zones are unannounced in advance, so as not to make it easier for enemy forces operating in the country to target them. Blinken and Austin traveled to Poland with small contingents of journalists under basic rules imposed by the United States requiring them not to report on the trip until it was completed. No American journalists accompanied the secretaries on the journey from Poland to Ukraine.

In his comments prior to their visit, Zelenskyy had publicly urged US secretaries not to show up empty-handed – and they did not.

Blinken came with news that the Biden administration will finally nominate an ambassador to Ukraine: Bridget Brink, currently the US ambassador to Slovakia, who for several weeks has been widely reported to be President Joe Biden’s likely election.

The United States has not had a Senate-confirmed ambassador to Ukraine since then-President Donald Trump fired Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch in 2019, and the position had become a diplomatic black eye for the United States when the Ukraine war broke out in the biggest global crisis. Brink, who has extensive experience in Eastern Europe, is facing another Senate vote to be confirmed for the post in Ukraine.

While in Kiev, Blinken also informed Zelenskyy that US diplomats will return to Ukraine this week – possibly as early as Monday – for the first time since the US evacuated its remaining diplomats in the country to Poland weeks ago, a senior official said. official in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. . Initially, US diplomats based in Poland will make day trips across the border to the Ukrainian city of Lviv and then to other parts of the country, the official said.

Ultimately, the United States intends to return at least some diplomats to the Ukrainian capital following a move by the United Kingdom last week to reopen its embassy there. The decision signals newfound U.S. confidence that Kyiv is now at least moderately safe after Russia withdrew its troops from the city earlier this month, following its failed attempt to capture it.

“We are speeding up the planning of returning to the embassy as soon as possible,” the senior official said.

Blinken also told the Ukrainians that the United States will provide an additional $ 713 million in military funding to Ukraine and other regional partners, the official said, including assistance to Ukraine for the transition from old Soviet weapons to more modern systems used by NATO members.

Zelenskyy also heard from Austin, who told him that some of the howitzers’ artillery systems that the Biden administration recently announced it would deliver have now arrived as Ukraine prepares for a potentially massive national team in the east. A senior defense official said a further seven howitzers are being prepared to be sent to Ukraine immediately, along with armored vehicles to tow them.

Getting US weapons systems such as heavy artillery into Ukraine has been a major logistical challenge, with Washington carefully targeting the risk that Russia could target weapons supply lines into the country.

Austin also confirmed during the visit that from Monday, the first tranche of Ukrainian troops being trained to use the artillery will have completed their training in a third country. The United States and Ukraine refuse to identify where the training is taking place at the country’s request, the senior defense officer said.

Still, Biden’s insistence that U.S. troops will not be sent to fight in Ukraine or impose a no-fly zone has not softened, officials traveling with Austin said, despite the visit to the war zone and the increased U.S. military assistance.

“This visit does not herald an actual involvement of U.S. forces,” the senior defense officer said.

Zelensky’s unusual public revelation on Saturday that Austin and Blinken were planning to visit had given rise to speculation that the trip might be canceled – and difficult questions about whether the Ukrainian leader had broken Americans’ trust and potentially endangered their security.

But officials traveling with the secretaries downplayed any U.S. dismay over the giveaway, with a defense officer saying the U.S. had planned the possibility that the word about the trip could leak in advance.

“You know it’s his country,” the high-ranking Foreign Ministry official said Sunday about Zelenskyy. “It did not change anything about our commitment to go there today and share what we have to say.”

As Austin and Blinken were on their way out of Ukraine, the Zelenskyy Biden administration and the American people thanked on Twitter for their support, calling the relationship between the United States and Ukraine “stronger than ever.”

In recent days, Zelenskyy has said he both expects and hopes that Biden will personally visit, although he acknowledged that this may not be possible until the security situation improves. Biden, who traveled to Ukraine several times as senator and vice president, has told reporters he wants to return as soon as possible.

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