The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

U.S. restarts diplomatic activity inside Ukraine and pledges more aid

The nomination of Ambassador Bridget Brink follows a visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin

Inna, 53, cries inside her ruined house in Ozera, Ukraine, on April 25. (Alexey Furman/Getty Images)
Placeholder while article actions load

President Biden named a new ambassador to Ukraine on Monday after his top diplomat and defense official embarked on a risky visit to the war-torn country, pledging increased military assistance and a return of America’s diplomatic presence after a hasty evacuation in February.

The cloak-and-dagger visit by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin was meant to hail Ukraine’s success in defending the capital, Kyiv, even as the Kremlin’s brutal, two-month-old military offensive continued.

Only hours after the two Cabinet secretaries departed for Poland by train, Russian forces bombed five Ukrainian railroad stations, including a rail line in Lviv near the Polish border. Ukrainian officials said Russia had continued to shell the ravaged port city of Mariupol over the Orthodox Easter holiday weekend, and they questioned Moscow’s announcement Monday that it would stop attacks so civilians could escape.

Despite the precarious situation, Blinken and Austin — the first senior U.S. officials to visit Ukraine since the fighting began — exuded confidence in the West’s ability to damage Russian President Vladimir Putin.

“Russia is failing, Ukraine is succeeding,” Blinken said after meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Sunday.

“We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” Austin said.

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)

To aid in that effort, the officials announced more than $700 million in new military aid to countries threatened by Russia, including more than $300 million for Ukraine. They said the money would allow Kyiv to buy more sophisticated air defense systems and stockpile arms compatible with those used by NATO nations instead of Soviet-designed weapons. The pledge brings the amount of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine since the beginning of the war to about $3.7 billion, in addition to roughly $1 billion in economic support.

But Ukraine’s leaders say they need more. Finance Minister Sergii Marchenko said Monday that the country is seeking at least $5 billion per month in international assistance for April, May and June — with about $2 billion of it coming from the United States. A longer-term request is expected in the future to help Ukraine recover from what has been an utterly devastating war.

“We need to cover this gap right now to attract the necessary finance and win this war,” Marchenko told The Washington Post in an interview.

It’s unclear how close the United States will get to meeting Ukraine’s ambitious request, but Blinken made clear that Ukraine would have Washington’s full diplomatic support.

Russia's war dead belie the claim that no soldier is left behind

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on April 24. (Video: AP)

Speaking in a hangar in Poland filled with crates of humanitarian aid, including diapers, destined for Ukraine, Blinken said diplomats would begin traveling to Lviv, in western Ukraine, ahead of the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv reopening its doors.

“We will have American diplomats back in Ukraine starting next week,” Blinken promised. “They’ll then start the process of looking at how we actually reopen the embassy itself in Kyiv.”

U.S. officials were some of the first foreign diplomats to flee Ukraine as the conflict unfurled, a move that drew rebukes from Ukrainian officials despite their deep reliance on Washington. The United States has in general been one of the most risk-averse countries in the world when it comes to the security of its diplomats, following the death of a U.S. ambassador and three other Americans in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012.

But officials said the benefits of reestablishing a diplomatic presence within Ukraine outweigh the risks, and will allow embassy staffers to coordinate more closely with Ukrainian officials and eventually provide more consular services.

“We’re doing it deliberately, we’re doing it carefully, we’re doing it with the security of our personnel foremost in mind — but we’re doing it,” Blinken said.

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)

Ukrainian villagers describe cruel and brutal Russian occupation

The United States is also more cautious than other countries when it comes to the travel of leaders. The Biden administration faced questions about why the president didn’t travel to Ukraine following the visit of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson earlier this month. Top European Union and Baltic officials have also visited Kyiv.

But U.S. officials said American presidents require even greater security than their peers — a factor they said would overburden the Ukrainian government at a time of war — though Ukrainian officials had said they would welcome such a visit.

“The president of the United States is somewhat singular in terms of what travel would require,” said a State Department official.

Biden’s nominee to serve as ambassador is Bridget Brink, who is currently the U.S. ambassador to Slovakia. Blinken said that she is “deeply experienced in the region” and “will be a very strong representative for the United States.”

Ukraine has not had a U.S. ambassador since 2019, when President Donald Trump removed Marie Yovanovitch from the position — a move that was scrutinized during Trump’s first impeachment inquiry.

Blinken and Austin said their visit to the Ukrainian capital, which Russian forces unsuccessfully tried to capture in the initial weeks of the war, highlighted the failure of Putin’s aims in Ukraine.

“The strategy that we’ve put in place — massive support for Ukraine, massive pressure against Russia, solidarity with more than 30 countries engaged in these efforts — is having real results,” Blinken said.

He said Russia’s main goal was “to totally subjugate Ukraine, to take away its sovereignty, to take away its independence.” Instead, Blinken said, the sanctions imposed on Russia by the United States and its allies have hurt its economy, while the Russian military is “dramatically underperforming.”

Blinken argued that another Russian goal — “to divide the West and NATO,” which the Kremlin says it views as a threat to its security — has also failed. Instead, the war in Ukraine has prompted Finland and Sweden, two traditionally neutral states near Russia, to consider joining the security alliance.

“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, and our support for Ukraine going forward will continue … until we see final success,” Blinken said.

U.S. looks to assist in war-crimes prosecutions targeting Russian leaders

Russia’s response to the high-level U.S. visit was relatively muted Monday, with Deputy Foreign Minister Andrei Rudenko telling reporters, “We’ll look at the results of the visit, then we’ll decide and draw conclusions.”

Putin, however, went on the offensive, accusing the West of trying to turn Russians against one another. “The task of splitting Russian society … is coming to the fore in the West, but this is not working,” the RIA Novosti news agency quoted him as saying.

Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is also traveling in Europe and will join Austin on Tuesday to meet 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.”

“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.

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.

A senior State Department official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive details, 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.

In Kyiv, authorities announced a nighttime curfew from Monday through Friday this week. The restrictions — from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. — would “help protect the population from the provocative actions of the enemy,” said Oleksandr Pavliuk, head of the Kyiv Regional Military Administration. People involved in “critical infrastructure work” are exempt if they have a special permit and identification card, he said on Telegram.

Outside the capital, Russia’s military offensive in southern and eastern Ukraine continued.

Despair and bloodshed on a somber Easter holiday

In Mariupol, Russia’s armed forces claimed to be unilaterally halting operations near a steel plant where Ukrainian fighters are holding out and civilians have sought protection as Russian troops have taken over the southeastern city.

Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk criticized Russia for announcing the move without negotiations. “The corridor, announced unilaterally, does not provide security, and therefore, in fact, is not a humanitarian corridor,” Vereshchuk wrote on Telegram. “So, I declare officially and publicly: Unfortunately, there are no agreements on humanitarian corridors from Azovstal today.”

Ukraine also accused Moscow of breaking previous pledges for a humanitarian corridor to evacuate civilians from the steel plant. Ukrainian officials said Monday that Russia has been striking the plant with missiles and bombs, despite calls for an Easter weekend cease-fire due to the risk to civilians.

Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev, head of Russia’s National Defense Control Center, said Ukrainian authorities were the only obstacle to getting civilians out of the plant, and he accused Kyiv of using the civilians as a “human shield,” according to RIA Novosti.

The news agency said Russian units would “retreat to a safe distance and ensure the exit of civilians, including working personnel, women and children in any direction.” Ukraine has previously accused Moscow of forcibly evacuating Ukrainian civilians to Russia.

Timsit reported from London. Julian Duplain in London; Jeff Stein, María Luisa Paúl and Tony Romm in Washington; and Karen DeYoung at Ramstein Air Base in Germany contributed to this report.