Encouraged by Ukraine’s Grit, the United States wants to see Russia weakened

KRAKOW, Poland – The United States sharpened its message on the Ukraine war on Monday, saying the US goal was not only to thwart the Russian invasion but also to weaken Russia so that it could no longer carry out such military aggression anywhere.

The goal was explicitly expressed by the highest-ranking Biden administration delegation to visit Ukraine since the war began. It reflected a courageous intention to counter Russia by providing more and stronger weapons to the Ukrainians, who have fought against Russian forces with unexpected tenacity, eroded the Kremlin’s resources and confused President Vladimir V. Putin’s hope for a quick victory.

The US delegation also announced that the US would reopen its embassy in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv – another signal aimed at portraying Russia as heading for defeat. The embassy, ​​which is open for the invasion on February 24, will be headed by a newly appointed ambassador.

The actual US visit, led over the weekend by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, ended early Monday and constituted a risky trip to Russia, which has sought to subjugate Ukraine by force per se. more than two months. Russia has demanded that the United States and its NATO allies stop supplying advanced weapons to Ukraine’s military.

Although the trip was supposed to be secret, the word leaked, and Russia rained rockets on at least five Ukrainian railway stations hours after visitors ended talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kiev and then traveled by train to Poland, which can take 11 hours. It is unclear whether they were in Ukraine during any part of these attacks or whether Russia had attacked them.

Ukraine’s railways and other infrastructure are important for channeling Western-supplied weapons and aid to the combat zones of the former Soviet republic, which Mr Putin has said he does not consider a real country.

Speaking in Poland after the trip, Mr Austin said Russia has suffered significant military losses so far, including “many of its troops.” He said the Pentagon was working to ensure that Russia could not “very quickly reproduce that capacity.”

Austin and Mr Blinken planned to hold detailed discussions on what support Ukraine needed to win a meeting with allies on Tuesday in Germany.

“We want to see Russia weakened to the point that it can not do the kind of thing that it has done by invading Ukraine,” Austin said.

The United States has agreed to supply not only advanced US-made weapons to Ukraine, but also newly manufactured ammunition for Soviet-designed weapons, as the Ukrainian forces still use many weapons dating to that time. On Monday, the State Department said the United States gave Ukraine $ 165 million in artillery shells, rockets and grenades compatible with Soviet-designed weapons.

Mr. Blinken, who said Russia had already been thwarted in its goal of destroying the Ukrainian state, told reporters that he expected the US embassy in Kiev to reopen in a few weeks. The administration named Bridget Brink, the current US ambassador to Slovakia, as the new envoy to Ukraine.

“Russia is failing,” Mr Blinken said. “Ukraine succeeds.”

On Monday, there were all indications that Russia saw the visit as a provocation to escalate the conflict. In addition to the rocket attacks on Ukraine’s railways, Russian attacks in the east knocked out electricity to the entire Luhansk province, leaving tens of thousands without power, local government officials said.

Elsewhere, an Orthodox Easter break was crushed in the northeastern city of Kharkiv, where Russia resumed shelling and wreaked havoc. And on the other side of the country, explosions shook Transnistria, a Russia-oriented breakaway region in Moldova bordering Ukraine. Hundreds of Russian troops are deployed in Transnistria, and Ukrainian defense authorities accused Russia of causing the explosions as a pretext to invade Ukraine from that direction.

Second developments on Monday pointed to further escalation. Russia said it was expelling 40 German diplomats in response to Germany’s deportation of Russians. And in Bryansk, a Russian logistical military hub less than 100 miles from the Ukrainian border, engulfed large fires of mysterious origin oil depots.

Russia’s original goal of conquering Ukraine by besieging the capital and bombing other major cities was hampered by inadequate logistics, poor military morale and fierce resistance that forced Russian withdrawal. In a new phase of the war, the Russians have focused their attacks on securing eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014.

Several officials in the Biden administration said the messages from Mr Austin and Mr Blinken were in part aimed at giving Mr Zelensky the strongest possible hand on what they expect will be a form of ceasefire in the coming months.

But the messages could also reinforce Mr Putin’s claims that the Ukraine war is in fact about the future of Russia, which sees neighboring Ukraine’s pro-Western leanings as a direct threat. And by casting the US target as a weakened Russia, the administration has more explicitly declared its willingness to limit the power of the Russian leader.

Mr. Zelensky has become bolder recently, saying Western nations are now supplying the heavy weapons he has been looking for. However, he has also been forthcoming in assessing the serious military situation of Ukrainian troops, which is surrounded inside a steel mill in Mariupol, the southeastern port city besieged by Russia, which has become a symbol of the devastation of the war.

At a news conference Saturday, Mr. Zelensky that the Ukrainian army has at times ceded territory in the fighting in the eastern part of the country, but also recaptured territories.

“Such is the situation in the eastern regions every day,” he said. “We can give a piece of territory, but at night we bring it back.”

The Ukrainian army, he said, had already demonstrated an ability to repel Russian forces. “I would like to give you the example of Kiev,” he said. “We liberated the territory, we occupied the territory.”

Mr. Zelensky certainly also spoke of achieving a victory in the East, saying it was crucial to Ukraine’s future. “Whatever they try to break, we will bring it back,” he said.

The NATO alliance has said it will not oblige troops to fight Russia, which could further escalate what is already the worst armed conflict in Europe since World War II. NATO has also rejected requests from Mr Zelensky to impose a no-fly zone over his non-NATO country.

But Mr Zelensky’s leadership and his armed forces’s successful use of NATO-supplied weapons against the Russians have increasingly strengthened his stature in the West, where he is seen as a brave protagonist facing the bullying of Mr. Putin.

The Russian president, who has shown contempt for Mr Zelensky, seems to have ruled out any direct contact with him so far. But Mr Putin has agreed to see UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who was scheduled to meet with him on Tuesday in Moscow before heading to Kiev to see Mr Zelensky. The visits are the most active diplomatic effort to stop the war from Mr Guterres, whose pleas for a ceasefire have basically been ignored so far.

Political analysts said Mr Zelensky’s despite Mr Putin’s likely to remain an acute source of irritation for the Russian leader, whose decision to go to war has not only isolated Russia financially but also given him few tangible victories to show his own people.

“Even if there is a frozen conflict that comes after some degree of Russian ‘success’ in this second phase of the war, Zelensky comes out of the fighting as a global hero, a David who stared down at Russia’s Goliath, who is leading a country that Putin considers illegitimate, “said Ian Bremmer, president and founder of Eurasia Group, a consultative organization at political risk. Mr Zelensky’s presence, Mr. Bremmer said,” is a direct threat to Putin that makes the Russian president to look weak. “

Marc Santora reported from Krakow, Poland; John Ismay from Ramstein Air Base, Germany; and Rick Gladstone from New York. Reporting is contributed by Andrew E. Kramer from Kiev, Ukraine; Jane Arraf from Lviv, Ukraine; Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Natalia Yermak from Kharkiv, Ukraine; Ivan Nechepurenko from Tblisi, Georgia; Cora Engelbrecht from Krakow; David E. Sanger and Erik Schmitt from Washington; and Richard Perez-Pena from New York.

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