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Blinken pledges $1 billion more to Ukraine amid doubts about offensive

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Picture: Anatolii Stepanov / AFP / taken July 10, 2023 – Ukrainian marines from the 37th Brigade check their French-made AMX-10 RC armoured fighting vehicle at a position in the Donetsk region on July 10, 2023, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. When asked by reporters what drives his optimism that Ukraine will prevail in the war, ‘Blinken fell back on a statistic he has cited since July indicating that Ukraine has recaptured roughly half the territory that Russia had seized since the start of its full-scale invasion’, the writers say.

By David L Stern and John Hudson

KYIV – Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged an additional $1 billion in assistance to Ukraine on Wednesday during a visit to Kyiv aimed at boosting support for the country as its military makes only incremental gains against entrenched Russian forces and US legislators begin debate about future funding for the war.

The top US diplomat said he received a battlefield update from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, who had just returned from the front line, and came away with “tremendous confidence that Ukraine will prevail” as it pushes to retake occupied territory.

But when asked by reporters what undergirds his optimism, Blinken fell back on a statistic he has cited since July indicating that Ukraine has recaptured roughly half the territory that Russia had seized since the start of its full-scale invasion.

“We are doing everything we can to maximise our support to Ukraine as it pursues the counter-offensive,” Blinken said.

Blinken travelled to Ukraine amid a barrage of Russian missile attacks – some that Ukraine shot down, others it did not. A missile strike on a market in the eastern city of Kostiantynivka killed at least 17 people and injured at least 32 in one of the deadliest bombardments in recent months, Ukrainian authorities said.

The two-day trip is Blinken’s fourth visit to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion started in February 2022 and his sixth since taking office. The $1 billion in new US funding includes air defence components, 155mm artillery ammunition, antitank missiles, air navigation systems and depleted uranium rounds, among other equipment. It also includes $100 million to support Ukraine’s long-term military needs and $300 million to help maintain law and order in newly liberated areas.

Zelenskyy expressed thanks to President Biden and to Congress for showing “great unity” in their support for Ukraine, while noting that this is a “tough period” for his country.

Blinken, a close confidant of Biden, is among Ukraine’s staunchest supporters within the administration, repeatedly pushing officials at home and abroad to provide more sophisticated weaponry to Kyiv and tamping down calls for a negotiated cease-fire with Moscow.

His trip comes less than a month after Biden requested that Congress provide more than $24 billion in additional aid for Ukraine as some polls show US public support for continued funding is slipping.

Blinken met first with American diplomats and personnel at the US Embassy in Kyiv. Afterwards, he laid a wreath at the city’s Berkovetske cemetery to commemorate fallen Ukrainian soldiers.

In the afternoon, he returned to the embassy, where he held a roundtable discussion with civil society organisations about anti-corruption efforts.

Blinken’s event on anti-corruption was aimed at signalling that the Biden administration takes government malfeasance seriously while maintaining its confidence in Zelenskyy, who announced on Sunday his decision to replace Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov with Rustem Umerov, head of Ukraine’s State Property Fund.

Reznikov’s ouster comes amid a series of corruption controversies within the Defence Ministry related to the bribery of recruitment officers, and overpayment for food and other military supplies. Reznikov has not been charged or directly implicated in any of the scandals, and there is speculation in Kyiv that he will get another prominent post, perhaps as ambassador to the United Kingdom.

Zelenskyy has previously taken heavily publicised steps to showcase his resolve in fighting corruption before the arrival of prominent international visitors, as he did in February ahead of a high-stakes meeting in Kyiv with European Union leaders.

Hours before Blinken’s arrival, Russia launched a missile assault on the Ukrainian capital, during which the sound of explosions could be heard throughout the city. The head of Kyiv’s military administration, Serhiy Popko, said that Russian forces fired cruise missiles and possibly ballistic missiles but that all were all intercepted by air defences.

Ukrainian officials said the region around the southern port of Odessa, where much of Ukraine’s grain export infrastructure is based, was also targeted in the early-morning attack.

But the missile strike in Kostiantynivka was particularly devastating and highlighted the war’s civilian toll. “When someone in the world still attempts to deal with anything Russian, it means turning a blind eye to this reality,” Zelenskyy wrote in a social media post that included video of the deadly strike. “The audacity of evil. The brazenness of wickedness. Utter inhumanity.”

Earlier Wednesday, Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov used Blinken’s visit to repeat Russia’s position that Western aid to Ukraine is futile and will only cause more deaths by prolonging the war. “We have repeatedly heard statements that they are going to continue to help Kyiv as long as it takes,” Peskov told journalists in his daily briefing. “In other words, they are going to continue to keep Ukraine in a state of war and to wage this war to the last Ukrainian, sparing no expense.”

Blinken, in remarks to reporters, said Ukraine has something that Russia never will – a reason to continue the battle. “Ukrainians are fighting for their own country, for their own future, for their own freedom. Russians are not,” he said.

Blinken arrived in the capital as Ukrainian troops are engaged in a difficult offensive to reclaim occupied areas in the country’s south, where Russian forces prepared for the attack by establishing heavily fortified defensive positions and mining huge swaths of territory. Those obstacles have proved extremely formidable.

A primary goal of the counter-offensive, which began in early June, is to push south and sever Russia’s “land bridge” to Crimea, a vital passageway that allows the Kremlin to supply its invading forces and that creates a protective buffer for the occupied peninsula, which Russia illegally invaded and annexed in 2014.

This year, Russia has fared better in defending its captured territory and has inflicted large casualties on the Ukrainian side while taking significant losses of its own.

Ukraine has made some progress in recent weeks, claiming to take control of the village of Robotyne. But the operation has been slow, and Russian forces simultaneously are fighting to retake occupied territory they lost last year in the northeast.

In recent weeks, the US intelligence community has assessed that Kyiv will fail to achieve a key goal of the offensive, retaking the southeastern city of Melitopol, an important transit hub that Moscow has turned into the occupied regional capital of Zaporizhzhia, one of four Ukrainian provinces that Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared – illegally – to be annexed to Russia.

Privately, senior US officials say Kyiv strayed from Washington’s guidance to concentrate a large mass of forces on a single breakthrough point rather than surging along multiple axes. Ukraine has pushed back on second-guessing about its strategy in the counter-offensive, insisting that it knows the war better and noting that it needs ammunition, not advice.

Blinken, however, has consistently sought to broadcast an upbeat assessment of Ukraine’s efforts, a message he maintained Wednesday. “In the current counter-offensive, we are seeing real progress over the last few weeks,” he said.

US legislators will want to see progress as they weigh a roughly $40 billion supplemental funding request put forward by the Biden administration last month. Besides providing Kyiv $24 billion in additional aid, the request includes funds for US disaster relief and border security.

Some House Republicans want to consider parts of the request separately, as they have limited interest in continuing to spend more money on Ukraine. Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (Republican, Kentucky) on Wednesday urged Republicans to support the package.

“It’s certainly not the time to go wobbly,” McConnell said. “Now, with Ukraine bravely defending its sovereignty and eroding Russia’s capacity to threaten Nato, it is not the time to ease up … Helping Ukraine retake its territory means weakening one of America’s biggest strategic adversaries without firing a shot.”

Hard-right GOP legislators such as Representatives. Marjorie Taylor Greene (Georgia) and Matt Gaetz (Florida) have spoken out against sending more aid to Ukraine, saying the conflict is not central to US interests.

Since the start of the war, the Biden administration and Congress have directed more than $75 billion in aid to Ukraine, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.

In recent months, the Kremlin repeatedly has blamed the West for Russia’s invasion, which has been condemned by a majority in the UN General Assembly. Putin is also facing an arrest warrant from the International Criminal Court in The Hague for alleged war crimes.

As they travelled to Kyiv, Blinken’s aides were reluctant to provide an overall assessment on the counter-offensive, saying part of the reason for the trip was to hear from Ukrainian officials about the current state of play. “We’ll have more to say about that on the back end,” a senior State Department official told reporters who accompanied the secretary, according to a readout of the conversation.

Another reason for the trip is the upcoming gathering of world leaders at the UN General Assembly in New York this month, Blinken’s aides said.

“The Ukrainians have an important mission in New York to continue to explain to their allies and partners around the world what’s going on and their continued need for support,” the senior official said. “It’s important for us to continue to lead that global effort to support them. And so having a chance to consult and align before we get to New York is very, very important.”

John Hudson reported from Washington. Hudson is a reporter at The Washington Post covering the State Department and national security. He was part of the team that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for coverage of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. David L Stern has worked for news outlets in Russia, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus, the Middle East and Central Asia. He has lived in Ukraine since 2009, covering the 2014 Maidan revolution, war in the country’s east and now Russia’s 2022 invasion.

This article was first published in The Washington Post