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U.S. to send diplomats back to Ukraine, pledges support in protracted war

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said April 25 that the U.S. wants Russia's military capability weakened so that it cannot carry out another invasion. (Video: The Washington Post)

IN POLAND, NEAR THE BORDER WITH UKRAINE — Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, on the heels of a trip to Kyiv, pledged ongoing American support to Ukraine as it faces the prospect of a protracted war against Russia.

Speaking in a hangar in Poland filled with crates of humanitarian aid, including diapers, destined for Ukraine, the two top Biden administration officials said Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had expressed “deep appreciation” to the United States.

“Our support for Ukraine going forward will continue … until we see final success,” Blinken said after the first high-level U.S. visit to the Ukrainian capital since Russia’s invasion began. “The bottom line is this: We don’t know how the rest of this war will unfold, but we do know that a sovereign independent Ukraine will be around a lot longer than Vladimir Putin is on the scene.”

Officials described the three-hour visit in Kyiv, following stops there in recent weeks by a number of European leaders, as a symbolic show of support for Ukraine’s leaders and a message of Western resolve to the Kremlin.

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The officials, who traveled from Poland by train, said they informed Zelensky of new military aid and the administration’s intent to resume diplomatic operations in Ukraine this week, marking the return of U.S. diplomats for the first time since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion.

Diplomats will begin by making day trips from Poland to Ukraine’s western city of Lviv, where Ukrainians and foreigners have sought shelter from the violence raging elsewhere in the country, a first step to reopening the U.S. Embassy that was shuttered before the invasion, officials said ahead of Blinken’s remarks.

Other nations, including Britain, have announced a resumption of embassy operations in Kyiv, and Blinken said the U.S. Embassy would probably reopen there within weeks.

The two U.S. leaders said their visit to the Ukrainian capital, which Russian forces were unable to capture despite an attempt in the initial weeks of the war, highlighted the failure of Putin’s aims in Ukraine.

Officials outlined additional steps that Blinken and Austin relayed to Ukrainian officials during their brief stay in the capital, where they also met with Ukraine’s foreign and interior ministers. They asked reporters to withhold the name of the location in Poland that Blinken and Austin used as the jumping-off point for their visit because of security reasons.

The Biden administration will announce the nomination of Bridget Brink, a career diplomat who serves as ambassador to Slovakia, as ambassador to Ukraine, Blinken said. There has been no confirmed U.S. ambassador to Ukraine since Marie Yovanovitch was ousted in 2019.

The officials also brought with them promises of additional security aid, including more than $300 million in military financing for Ukraine, allowing it to buy more sophisticated air defense systems and stockpile arms compatible with those used by NATO nations instead of Soviet-designed weapons. About $400 million more goes to help other countries purchase new weapons to boost their stocks or, in some cases, replenish arms provided to Ukraine.

The new pledge brings the amount the Biden administration has given Ukraine in security assistance since the beginning of the war to about $3.7 billion.

Austin said the United States would respond to Ukraine’s military needs as the war evolves. With the fight shifting to eastern and southern Ukraine, where Russia is seeking to cement control of areas around Crimea and in regions where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Kyiv since 2014, Austin said Ukrainian forces would now need more tanks and long-range munitions. “We’re going to push as hard, as quickly as we can to get them what they need,” he said.

Another senior State Department official said the depletion of Russian hardware and forces in the war, in combination with sanctions and commercial restrictions, was hurting Russia’s ability to resupply itself in Ukraine and maintain military readiness at home.

“They’re starting to get into a trade-off between what they can put into Ukraine and what they need to hold in reserve as something to match up against NATO,” the official said.

He noted that some nonmember states in Europe, including Finland, now appear to be moving toward joining the alliance, which he described as another element Russia would see as a threat. “This is a strategic debacle for Putin.”

The United States and other NATO nations have expanded the flow of weaponry to Ukraine in recent weeks but have stopped short of providing fighter jets or, as Zelensky demanded in the first weeks of the war, a NATO-enforced no-fly zone.

A senior U.S. defense official said Austin would update Zelensky on the promised deliveries of howitzers and the ongoing training of Ukrainian troops on U.S. artillery systems, part of a previously announced set of U.S. allocations. Officials declined to identify where the training is being conducted.

The Biden administration will also sell Ukraine up to $165 million in “nonstandard ammunition” it can use for its existing weapons systems.

“The first step in winning is believing you can win. They believe that [they] can win; we believe that they can win if they have the right equipment, the right support,” Austin said. “We’re going to continue to do everything we can to ensure that that gets [done].”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin held a joint news conference in Poland on April 25 after their Kyiv visit. (Video: The Washington Post)

After his Kyiv visit, Austin will travel to Germany for a meeting on Tuesday with defense officials from a number of countries, including Ukraine.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is also traveling in the region and will join Austin on Tuesday for the meeting with more than 40 NATO and non-NATO defense leaders at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. The conference’s aim, Milley said, is to solicit new military aid and “to coordinate, synchronize our efforts” over the next several weeks.

“I think it’s accurate that the next several weeks will be very, very critical … for the outcome of this battle that’s shaping up down in the south, the southeast of Ukraine,” Milley told reporters at Ramstein, where he arrived Sunday night.

“What we want to do is make sure the right type of aid is getting to the right location at the right time, in the right quantities and make sure it’s all properly synchronized to achieve the desired effect and outcome on the battlefield,” he said.

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Officials said reestablishing the diplomatic presence within Ukraine will allow embassy staffers to coordinate more closely with Ukrainian officials and, eventually, provide more consular services.

“This is the first step, and we expect to be able to accelerate that in the coming days and weeks,” the State Department official said.

The defense official said the Pentagon still views Ukraine’s port of Mariupol as contested despite Russian statements about having completed a prolonged campaign to seize the city, which is on the Sea of Azov.

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“For all the Russian claims that they’ve got, it is certainly not acting like an army that thinks they’ve got it because they continue to hit Mariupol,” he said.

He said Moscow had assigned about a dozen Russian tactical groups to the key southern port. Mariupol, a major Russian objective, could help Russia secure a land bridge to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014 and could be used as a jumping-off point for attempts to push north into other parts of Ukraine.

The official said fighting in the greater Donbas region, which includes Mariupol and areas held by Russian-backed separatists, remained inconclusive.

Karen DeYoung contributed to this report.

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