US officials pay a top-secret visit to Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine – Two top US officials on a trip shrouded in secrecy on Sunday made a wartime trip to Kiev, where Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky planned to urge them to provide more assistance in his nation’s fight against Russian invaders, a top Ukrainian official said.

The U.S. government had made extraordinary efforts to keep everything about Secretary of State Antony J. Blinkens and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III’s journey under wraps until the men were safely out of Ukraine, and even declined to confirm that it took place.

But it was an open secret.

A day earlier, Mr. Zelensky plans for the US delegation at the highest level to visit Ukraine since Russia invaded two months ago. In an interview aired Sunday while the U.S. government remained silent, an adviser to Mr Zelensky, Oleksiy Arestovych, said on Ukrainian television that the men were there.

“They are in Kiev right now and talking to the president,” he said. Arestovich. “Maybe something will be decided on how they can help.”

Less secret was the agenda of the meeting: Ukraine’s plea for more military aid from Western allies as the country tries to ward off an attack that has shattered cities and left thousands dead. A Ukrainian lawmaker said it was sending “a strong signal to Russia that Ukraine will not stand alone with this war.”

Already Congress has approved $13.6 billion in emergency spending related to the invasion, including for weapons, military supplies, and one of the largest inflows of U.S. foreign aid to any country in the past decade. The funds also cover the deployment of US troops to Europe. Days before the US visit, President Biden announced an additional $ 800 million in military aid, including equipment designed to help Ukraine avert Russia’s offensive in the east.

But top-level US officials had not visited the country since it was invaded, even as European leaders witnessed first-hand evidence of atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in the suburbs of Kiev.

As Ukrainians celebrated Orthodox Easter, the leader of Ukraine’s Independent Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epiphaniy, met Sunday with two visiting members of the US Congress, Tim Walberg of Michigan and Victoria Spartz of Indiana, both Republicans.

“Now we celebrate Easter, which is about the resurrection of Christ,” said the big city. “We are confident that with his victory we will have victory too.

But by condemning the Russians, he also supported the just use of force in self-defense.

“In this difficult battle,” he said, “spirit is not enough. You also need weapons.”

On Sunday, the fighting raged in Mariupol, the eastern port city, where Russia doubled its attack after withdrawing its forces from the capital region, where they had met fierce resistance. A steelworks where Ukrainian forces have endured has come under heavy attack, but it remains under Ukrainian control – at least for the time being.

“We are ready to leave the city because there is nothing left to defend,” said Captain Svyatoslav Palamar, a Ukrainian commander, by telephone from inside the factory on Sunday. “We believe we have fulfilled our mission.”

Given Russia’s new focus on conquering eastern Ukraine, a region filled with wide expanses of plains, Ukrainian forces need more long-range weapons and the ability to quickly move troops on the ground and in the air, military analysts say.

With long-range artillery cannons, helicopters, armored vehicles, tanks, radar defense systems and deadly drones now pouring into the country, Ukrainian leaders have said they have the opportunity not only to defend their country but also to drive out the Russians.

Mr. Blinken was the last senior U.S. official to visit Ukraine when he stopped there in mid-January. The United States closed its embassy in Kiev on February 14, and its diplomats soon left the country.

Russia’s invasion began 10 days later, and as it attempted to capture the capital in an initial offensive, parts of Kiev were hit by shelling, and Ukrainian and Russian forces fought in the streets of Kiev’s suburbs. But Russia’s withdrawal from the area around Kiev seems to have made the city far less dangerous than it was a few weeks ago, and Western leaders have taken the opportunity to demonstrate solidarity with Mr Zelensky.

It remained unclear on Sunday exactly how Mr Austin and Mr Blinken came to Kiev, where Mr Zelensky has resided since Russia invaded the country.

The distance makes air travel the obvious choice, but the Ukrainian government closed its airspace to civilian flights when the invasion began.

Other leaders who visited, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, went by rail. But given the security concerns, his trip was also shrouded in secrecy. Rumors of an impending trip by Mr Johnson had been circulating for days, but no news of the trip itself became public until he was seen in Kiev.

In March, Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Poland, where she expressed US support for Ukraine and US allies in NATO and the EU. Sir. Blinken previously went as far as Poland’s border with Ukraine, where he met with Ukrainian diplomats at a crossing used by hundreds of refugees over the course of an hour.

Mr. Biden also visited a town near the border on a state visit to Poland on March 25, but did not cross into Ukraine. He met with refugees and gave a speech in Warsaw the next day.

Previous visits by senior US officials to other war zones, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, were typically not announced until after the official had arrived in the country – and sometimes not until after they had left.

The White House has ruled out sending Mr Biden to Ukraine, not only on the grounds of risk, but Mr Biden’s enormous security demands. Senior government officials such as Mr Blinken and Mr Austin travel with less entourage.

On Sunday, as Ukrainians gathered for muted celebrations of Easter, Russia’s offensive claimed more lives.

Before dawn, two young girls aged 5 and 14 were killed when their home in the Donetsk region, near the eastern border with Russia, was destroyed, according to the Donetsk Regional Military Administration.

Nearly 100 miles to the west, three Russian missiles crashed into the city of Pavlograd. The attacks damaged railway infrastructure and eight buildings and also killed a 48-year-old man, according to local authorities.

In the eastern region of Luhansk, at least eight people were killed when seven houses and a police station were hit by Russian artillery fire, according to Ukrainian authorities.

The statements of state and local officials offered only a partial account of the growing number as fighting along the 300-mile long front line in eastern and southern Ukraine intensified. The fierce fighting has so far resulted in only small gains for Russian forces, but the situation of civilians trapped in the crossfire is becoming more serious day by day.

The fighting once again hampered the evacuation effort.

Igor Zhovkva, an adviser to President Zelensky, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that despite claims from Russia that it had taken control of the port city of Mariupol, Ukrainian forces and civilians remained in the city. Many soldiers were wounded, he said.

“Today, we turn to the Russian authorities to open the humanitarian corridors to civilians,” he said.

With the city in ruins, an estimated 120,000 people survive below what witnesses have described as barbaric conditions. Ukrainian officials said Sunday that Russian forces continue to bomb the sprawling steel plant, where hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians have been captured.

Ukrainian forces are willing to leave the factory and evacuate the city if they receive guarantees of safe passage for themselves and hundreds of civilians, said Captain Palamar, deputy commander of the Azov battalion, whose fighter jets have been trapped at the facility since March 1.

“We will continue to defend it until there is an order to withdraw from our military leadership,” he said. “And if we’re going to leave, we’re leaving with our weapons.”

Andrew E. Kramer reported from Kiev, and Natalie Kitroeff from Mexico City. Reporting is contributed by Marc Santora and Jane Arraf from Lviv, Ukraine; Michael Schwirtz of Mariupol; Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London; and Edward Medina from New York.

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