In a Surprise Visit to Ukraine, Blinken Offers Aid and Encouragement

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RZESZOW, POLAND — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken paid a surprise visit to Kyiv on Thursday, pledging $2.8 billion in military aid for Ukraine and other countries at risk of Russian invasion as the United States backs a Ukrainian effort to gain fresh military momentum.

With Ukraine waging a counteroffensive to reclaim territory lost to invading Russian forces, America will send an additional $675 million in military support for the country, Mr. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III said in separate announcements.

Mr. Blinken also said he was asking Congress to approve just over $2 billion more for longer-term investments in Ukraine’s military and that of 18 other mostly small and vulnerable European countries. The combined aid makes for a total of $14.7 billion in security assistance from the Biden administration since Russia’s invasion in February, Mr. Blinken said.

Mr. Blinken’s trip to Kyiv, made in secret via overnight train from eastern Poland, was his second since the Russian invasion began, and was meant to show unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine as Russia appears to be digging in for an extended military and economic conflict.

“We know this is a pivotal moment, more than six months into Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, as your counteroffensive is now underway and proving effective,” Mr. Blinken told Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, in a meeting at the heavily fortified presidential administration building in Kyiv.

His trip came as Mr. Austin met with allied defense ministers at a monthly gathering of the Ukraine Contact Group, which aims to coordinate the flow of military aid to Ukraine. The arrival of Western equipment, particularly longer-range HIMARS missile systems, has enabled Ukrainian forces to attack Russian military infrastructure behind the front lines and supported counteroffensives in the south and, apparently, in the northeast.

“Ukrainian forces have begun their counteroffensive in the south of their country, and they are integrating the capabilities that we all have provided to help themselves to fight and reclaim their sovereign territory,” Mr. Austin said at the start of the meeting, at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

“This contact group needs to position itself to sustain Ukraine’s brave defenders for the long haul,” he said. “That means the continued and determined flow of capability now.”

President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia delivered a defiant address on Wednesday that whitewashed the war’s huge toll on his country, and his army’s faltering performance, telling an economic conference in Russia’s far East, “We have not lost anything, and will not lose anything.”

The latest American aid package is intended to help Ukraine “prevail” in its fight over Russia, a senior U.S. official said on the eve of Mr. Blinken’s arrival in Kyiv. But U.S. officials refuse to define exactly what a Ukrainian victory might look like, and some experts argue that Ukraine is unlikely to gain a decisive military advantage.

At the same time, top Biden officials — including Mr. Blinken, in his meeting with Mr. Zelensky — also underscored the importance of Ukraine having a strong hand in any peace negotiations with Russia.

Any political settlement to the war, now in its seventh month, remains a distant prospect, however. A second U.S. official on Wednesday called negotiations virtually impossible in the current environment, with Ukraine’s public firmly opposed to making any concessions to Moscow and with Russia showing no interest in serious negotiations.

On Thursday, the C.I.A. director, William J. Burns, told an audience that Mr. Putin believes he can simply wear down his military and political foes over time.

Updated 

Sept. 9, 2022, 5:28 p.m. ET

“Putin’s bet right now is that he is going to be tougher than the Ukrainians, the Europeans, the Americans,” Mr. Burns said, speaking at the Billington CyberSecurity conference in Washington.

“I believe, and my colleagues at C.I.A. believe, that Putin is as wrong about that bet as he was profoundly wrong in his assumptions going back to last February about Ukrainian will to resist,” Mr. Burns said. He added that American intelligence would continue to play an important role in supporting Kyiv “and ensuring that Putin fails in Ukraine.”

In Germany, Mr. Austin said that the new package of weapons included air-launched HARM missiles designed to seek and destroy Russian air defense radar; guided multiple-launch rocket systems known as GMLRS; howitzers and other artillery; armored ambulances; and small arms.

The State Department said the $2 billion package, which will be drawn from pools of money already authorized by Congress, but whose specific allocation is still subject to House and Senate approval, would be divided roughly in half between Ukraine and the group of 18 other nations. They are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Greece, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.

The money would be used to “build the current and future capabilities” of Ukraine’s armed forces and those of the other countries, including by strengthening their cyber and hybrid warfare capabilities, specifically to counter Russian aggression,” the State Department said.

The money would also help integrate non-NATO members with the alliances’s military forces.

Mr. Blinken made several stops in Kyiv, including at the American embassy, which reopened in May, and at a hospital treating children injured in Russian attacks. Mr. Blinken met there with a six-year-old girl from Kherson who was identified by her given name, Maryna, who lost a leg when a rocket struck her house.

At the hospital Mr. Blinken was also introduced to Patron, a Jack Russell terrier that Ukrainian forces have credited with helping unearth hundreds of Russian land mines. The secretary of state declared the dog “world famous.”

After meetings with Ukraine’s foreign minister, Dmytro Kuleba, and with Mr. Zelensky, Mr. Blinken toured a devastated residential area in Irpin, outside of Kyiv. As he escorted Mr. Blinken past demolished buildings and one bullet-riddled car, the city’s deputy mayor noted that Ukraine would need help rebuilding its cities.

The fighting in northeastern Ukraine, near the city of Kharkiv, suggested that Ukraine’s military might be trying to exploit the movement of Russian forces to the south to defend positions against the growing Ukrainian counteroffensive there.

Western analysts said this week that Ukrainian forces in the Kharkiv area seemed to have pushed Russian troops back from around the town of Balakliya, and captured the nearby village of Verbivka.

“It’s very early, but we’re seeing clear and real progress on the ground, particularly in the area around Kherson, but also some interesting developments in the Donbas in the east,” Mr. Blinken told reporters before his return to Poland.

After seizing the last major cities of Luhansk Province in eastern Ukraine in early July, Russian forces have struggled to make gains in the east and have spent weeks reinforcing positions in the south — as Ukraine telegraphed its plans to start a counteroffensive there. During those weeks, Ukraine used long-range weapons sent by the West to disrupt Russian supply lines in the south and struck far behind enemy lines with the help of special forces and partisans.

The commander of Ukraine’s armed forces on Wednesday acknowledged publicly for the first time that Ukraine was behind last month’s strikes on a Russian air base in Crimea, the peninsula Russia seized in 2014.

The commander, Gen. Valeriy Zaluzhnyi, and a colleague wrote in an article published by Ukrinform, a Ukrainian news agency, that as many as 10 Russian warplanes were destroyed in the attack on the base, on Crimea’s western Black Sea coast.

As the war stretches on, General Zaluzhnyi said, such attacks would be important for Ukraine’s military, to make the conflict feel “sharper” and “tangible” in lands occupied by Russia.

Julian E. Barnes, Matthew Mpoke Bigg, Victoria Kim and Alan Yuhas contributed reporting.

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