Washington's top diplomat and its defense secretary visited Kyiv on Sunday, using the first official U.S. visit to Ukraine since Russia invaded two months ago to announce a gradual return of U.S. diplomats and the nomination of a new ambassador.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Poland on Saturday and took a train the following day into Ukraine, where they met President Volodomyr Zelenskyy and other top Ukrainian officials.
"In terms of Russia’s war aims, Russia has already failed and Ukraine has already succeeded," Blinken told a briefing in Poland after the two officials returned from the meeting.
The visit was designed to show Western support for Ukraine and the cabinet secretaries also pledged new aid worth $713 million for Zelenskyy's government and countries in the region, where Russia's invasion has raised fears of further aggression by Moscow.
"Our focus in the meeting was to talk about those things that would enable us to win the current fight and also build for tomorrow," Austin told the briefing, calling the meeting in Kyiv "very productive."
Russian forces have regrouped to try to capture more territory in the southeastern Donbas region, letting foreign leaders visit the capital and some Western nations resume their diplomatic presence in recent weeks, but Washington has been cautious about a return amid sporadic Russian missile attacks.
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"We certainly saw people on the streets of Kyiv, evidence of the fact that the battle for Kyiv was won," Blinken told the briefing, providing glimpses of the train journey from Poland.
"But that’s in stark contrast to what’s going on in other parts of Ukraine, in the south and the east, where the Russian brutality is just horrific.
"However, the delegation traveled directly to Kyiv by train and did not have much opportunity to speak to Ukrainians beyond the meeting with officials, he added.
Earlier, U.S. officials had declined media requests to accompany the two officials into Ukraine, citing security concerns. They briefed reporters in Poland on condition the trip not be reported until the delegation was safely out of Ukraine.
Austin will now travel on to Germany, where he will host counterparts from more than 20 nations and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the U.S. air base at Ramstein to discuss Ukraine's defense needs, a Pentagon official said.
The meeting Blinken and Austin held with Zelenskiy, Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov and other officials lasted nearly three hours, overrunning an allotted time of 90 minutes.
U.S. diplomats departed the Kyiv embassy nearly two weeks before the Feb. 24 invasion, moving some functions to the western city of Lviv before eventually relocating to Poland.
Diplomats will initially resume "day trips" across the border to Lviv in the coming week and officials are accelerating plans to return to Kyiv, the State Department official said.
"There's no substitute for that face-to-face engagement, and of course there is a symbolism to being back in the country," said the official, who briefed reporters in Poland on condition of anonymity.
The official also said President Joe Biden would formally nominate on Monday Bridget Brink, now U.S. ambassador to Slovakia, as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, a post vacant for more than two years.
Battle for the Donbas
Blinken and Austin told Zelenskiy of more than $322 million in new foreign military financing for Ukraine, taking total U.S. security assistance since the invasion to about $3.7 billion, the official said."It will provide support for capabilities Ukraine needs, especially the fight in the Donbas," the official said.
It would also help Ukraine's armed forces transition to more advanced weapons and air defense systems, essentially NATO capable systems, he added.
Nearly $400 million in new foreign military financing will go to 15 other nations in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, the official said.More than 50 Ukrainians were set to complete training on Monday to operate Howitzer heavy artillery that Washington has begun sending to Ukraine in recent weeks as fighting now focuses on the flatter, more open Donbas region, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters in Poland.
U.S. military aid was arriving in Ukraine with "unimaginable speed," Austin told Monday's briefing, adding that after Biden's Thursday approval of a new tranche of weapons, "On Saturday, Howitzers were showing up from that drawdown package."
Ahead of the visit, Blinken spoke with U.N. Secretary General António Guterres on Friday to coordinate on the latter's visits to Moscow and Kyiv, the official said.