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Blinken and Austin sneak into Ukraine's capital to meet with Zelenskyy

Top U.S. officials meet with Zelenskyy
Top U.S. officials meet with Zelenskyy in Kyiv 03:00

Near the Polish-Ukrainian border — After a secrecy-shrouded visit to Kyiv, U.S. Secretary of State Blinken said Russia is failing in its war aims and "Ukraine is succeeding." The trip by Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was the highest-level American visit to Ukraine's capital since Russia invaded in late February.

The top officials from Washington told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his advisers that the U.S. would provide more than $300 million in foreign military financing, and had already approved a $165 million sale of ammunition.

"We had an opportunity to demonstrate directly our strong ongoing support for the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people. This was, in our judgment, an important moment to be there to have face-to-face conversations in detail," Blinken told reporters Monday near the Polish-Ukrainian border, after returning from Kyiv.

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Image provided by Pentagon shows U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, left, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on April 24, 2022 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Department of Defense via AP

Austin said Zelenskyy's response to the aid was deep appreciation for what was being given, but "he has the mindset that they want to win and we have the mindset that we want to help them win." The American defense chief said victory, from the U.S. perspective, would include seeing Russia "weakened" militarily.

In video of the meeting released later by the Zelenskyy's office, Blinken praises the Ukrainian leader for the "extraordinary courage and leadership and success that you've had in pushing back this horrific Russian aggression."

"We got used to seeing you on video around the world, but it's great, it's good to see you in person," Blinken says with a smile.

Blinken also said U.S. diplomats returning to Ukraine likely would restaff the consulate in Lviv, in western Ukraine, before returning to the capital. They previously said the diplomats would start returning this week. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv will remain closed for the time being.

Austin said at the news conference that "the world has been inspired" by Ukraine during the war, and that America would continue its support.

"What you've done in repelling the Russians in the battle of Kyiv is extraordinary," he said.

Zelenskyy had announced Saturday that he would meet with the U.S. officials in Kyiv on Sunday, but the Biden administration refused to confirm that and declined to discuss details of a possible visit even though planning had been underway for more than a week.

Journalists who traveled with Austin and Blinken to Poland were barred from reporting on the trip until it ended, weren't allowed to accompany them on their overland journey into Ukraine, and were prohibited from specifying where in southeast Poland they waited for the U.S. cabinet members to return. Officials at the State Department and the Pentagon cited security concerns.

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin speak with reporters in Poland, near Ukraine's border,  on April 25, 2022, after returning from their secret trip to Kyiv, Ukraine and meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Alex Brandon / AP

Britain's Ministry of Defense said Monday that Ukrainian troops holed up in a steel plant in the strategic port city of Mariupol were tying down Russian forces and keeping them from being added to the offensive elsewhere in the Donbas.

The ministry added that, so far, Russia has only made "minor advances in some areas since shifting its focus to fully occupying the Donbas," the eastern industrial heartland where Moscow-backed separatists controlled some territory before the war. 

With Russia's shift in focus, Austin said Ukraine's military needs are changing, and Zelenskyy is now focused on more tanks, artillery and other munitions.
"The nature of the fight has evolved, because the terrain they're now focused on is a different type of terrain, so they need long-range fires," Austin said.
Asked about what the U.S. sees as success, Austin said that "we want to see Ukraine remain a sovereign country, a democratic country able to protect its sovereign territory. We want to see Russia weakened to the point where it can't do things like invade Ukraine."

U.S. Ambassador Bridget Brink U.S. State Department/Handout

On the diplomatic front, Blinken gave Zelenskyy an early heads-up about Mr. Biden's Monday morning announcement of his nomination of veteran diplomat Bridget Brink to be the next U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine. 

A career foreign service officer, Brink has served since 2019 as ambassador to Slovakia. She previously held assignments in Serbia, Cyprus, Georgia and Uzbekistan as well as with the White House National Security Council. The post requires confirmation by the U.S. Senate.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres was scheduled to travel to Turkey on Monday, meanwhile, and then on to Moscow and Kyiv. 

Zelenskyy said it was a mistake for Guterres to visit Russia before Ukraine. "Why? To hand over signals from Russia? What should we look for?" Zelenskyy said Saturday. "There are no corpses scattered on the Kutuzovsky Prospect," he said, referring to one of Moscow's main avenues.

In a boost in support for Ukraine, French President Emmanuel Macron comfortably won a second term Sunday, beating far-right challenger Marine Le Pen who had pledged to dilute France's ties with the European Union and NATO. Le Pen had also spoken out against EU sanctions against Russian energy and had faced scrutiny during the campaign over her previous friendliness with the Kremlin.

To Ukraine's north, on the Russian side of the border, a fire erupted early Monday at an oil depot, but no immediate cause was given for the blaze in oil storage tanks.

Austin and Blinken announced a total of $713 million in foreign military financing for Ukraine and 15 allied and partner countries; some $322 million is earmarked for Kyiv. The remainder will be split among NATO members and other nations that have provided Ukraine with critical military supplies since the war with Russia began, officials said.

Such financing is different from previous U.S. military assistance for Ukraine. It's not a donation of drawn-down U.S. Defense Department stockpiles, but rather cash that countries can use to purchase supplies that they might need.

The new money, along with the sale of $165 million in non-U.S. made ammunition compatible with Soviet-era weapons the Ukrainians use, brings the total amount of American military assistance to Ukraine to $3.7 billion since the invasion, officials said.

Zelenskyy had urged the Americans not to come empty-handed. U.S. officials said they believed the new assistance would satisfy at least some of the Ukrainians' urgent pleas for more help. New artillery, including howitzers, continues to be delivered at a rapid pace to Ukraine's military, which is being trained on its use in neighboring countries, the officials said.

Mr. Biden has accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of genocide for the destruction and death wrought on Ukraine. On Thursday, Mr. Biden said he would provide a new package of $800 million in military aid to Ukraine that included heavy artillery and drones.

Congress approved $6.5 billion for military assistance last month as part of $13.6 billion in spending for Ukraine and allies in response to the Russian invasion.

From Poland, Blinken departed to return to Washington while Austin was heading to Ramstein, Germany, for a meeting on Tuesday of NATO defense ministers and other donor countries.

Zelenskyy's meeting with U.S. officials took place as Ukrainians and Russians observed Orthodox Easter. Speaking from Kyiv's ancient St. Sophia Cathedral, Zelenskyy, who is Jewish, highlighted its significance to a nation wracked by nearly two months of war.

"The great holiday today gives us great hope and unwavering faith that light will overcome darkness, good will overcome evil, life will overcome death, and therefore Ukraine will surely win!" he said.

But the war cast a shadow over the celebrations. In the northern village of Ivanivka, where Russian tanks still litter the roads, resident Olena Koptyl said "the Easter holiday doesn't bring any joy. I'm crying a lot. We cannot forget how we lived."

Putin attended the Orthodox Easter service in Moscow on Sunday.

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