In Surprise Ukraine Visit, Blinken Declares Vision For Kyiv’s Victory

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KYIV – Ukraine’s friends are committed to helping it fortify and prevail against Russia’s full-scale invasion, Secretary of State Antony Blinken declared in a speech in Ukraine’s capital Tuesday, vowing to aid in the Kremlin’s defeat even as Kyiv faces deepening questions about its ability to hold off an assault threatening its front lines.

In an unusually sweeping address for the chief U.S. diplomat, Blinken called for a long-term plan to further enhance the country’s war machine so it would be better able to resist the Kremlin on its own, and for anti-corruption efforts and other reforms that Ukraine has struggled with ever since it broke from the Soviet Union in 1991.

Blinken’s unannounced two-day trip was the first high-level visit by a Biden administration official since Congress last month approved a $61 billion aid package for Ukraine after seven months of obstruction by some Republicans. The visit was intended as a show of solidarity as the Pentagon speeds delivery of air defenses, artillery and other combat equipment in a bid to stabilize Kyiv’s military – and as Ukraine contends with the possibility that it may never regain all the territory it has lost to Russia.

U.S. officials have conceded that Ukraine’s sizable challenges mean it may not regain a battlefield advantage before 2025 at the earliest, fueling fears among Ukrainian officials that they could be pushed into negotiating with Russian President Vladimir Putin while he has the upper hand.

“The coming weeks and months will demand a great deal of Ukrainians, who have already sacrificed so much. But I have come to Ukraine with a message: You are not alone,” Blinken said in a speech delivered to senior officials and students in an ornate hall inside the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute.

“Americans understand that our support for Ukraine strengthens the security of the United States and our allies. They understand that if Putin achieves his goals here in Ukraine, he won’t stop with Ukraine. He’ll keep going,” he said.

The speech came after a day of meetings in the capital, including with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The Biden administration has been eager to display Washington’s continued support for the country after congressional inaction choked off U.S. assistance and weakened Ukraine’s ability to repel renewed Russian attacks.

Russia’s military capacity has proved resilient. Former president Donald Trump, meanwhile, has been much more equivocal about helping Ukraine than President Biden, and Trump is running strong in U.S. election polls. So the reassurances from the top U.S. diplomat that Washington remains a reliable supporter were likely to have sounded different from the last time he was here, in September, as Ukraine was just starting to wind down a hotly anticipated counteroffensive that ultimately failed to recapture much ground.

Blinken said the Biden administration hoped to build up Ukraine’s military, its military industry and its industrial base so the country’s defense has a sharper bite and its economy is more robust. To succeed, he said, will require major continued reform efforts to beat back corruption. Ukraine must also open up key parts of the economy, such as the energy sector, to more competition, he said.

“Winning on the battlefield will prevent Ukraine from becoming part of Russia. Winning the war against corruption will keep Ukraine from becoming like Russia,” Blinken said.

Blinken tacitly acknowledged the political challenges in Washington of approving further aid packages.

“The American people want to know that we have a plan for getting to the day when Ukraine can stand strongly on its own feet militarily, economically, democratically, so that America’s support can transition to more sustainable levels,” he said. “Our goal is to lay a foundation so strong that it dispels any doubts about Ukraine’s ability to impose punishing costs on those who try to take its territory.”

Ukraine also faces a continued struggle inside the United States, where House Republicans who held up aid for months continue to question the long-term strategy and Ukraine’s chances for success.

In the end, the aid passed the House with a large majority, but with fewer than half of Republicans in support. Trump has sent mixed messages about his policies but has declared that if he returns to the White House, he would end the war in 24 hours.

Blinken has also been largely preoccupied elsewhere in recent months, focusing on the Middle East since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s subsequent military operation in Gaza. While lower-level trips to Ukraine have continued, Blinken has visited the Middle East seven times since the fall, a measure of the degree to which regional diplomacy there is now consuming his days. By contrast, he has traveled to Kyiv four times since Russia invaded Ukraine in February 2022.

On Tuesday, he sought to reassure Ukrainians that Washington remained with them, reaching into history to speak of Taras Shevchenko, a Ukrainian national hero who helped foster the country’s identity in the 19th century and sought to distinguish it from Russia.

“For decades, Putin has caused unspeakable grief for the people of Ukraine. He’s inflicted every kind of degradation and harshness. And yet like Shevchenko before you, what is inside Ukrainians, that has not changed,” Blinken said. “The spirit of Ukrainians cannot be destroyed by a bomb or buried in a mass grave. It cannot be bought with a bribe or repressed with a threat. It is pure. It is unbreakable. And it is why Ukraine will succeed.”

In their meeting at the heavily fortified presidential offices in central Kyiv, Zelensky declared his “big appreciation” for the U.S. aid. But he also said Ukraine’s needs remained urgent and immediate. “Air defense [is] the biggest deficit for us,” he told Blinken.

“Really, we need today two Patriots for Kharkiv,” he said, referring to the advanced U.S.-made antimissile system. “There are people under attack, civilians and warriors.”

Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city, is so close to the Russian border – leaving so little response time to airstrikes – that some military experts question how useful the expensive Patriot system would be there.

Ukrainians have also chafed at White House restrictions that they not use U.S. equipment to strike inside Russian territory, something they say is a disadvantage as they fight an invading force.

Russia’s military planners have proved adaptable and have used glide bombs and other munitions to exhaust Kyiv’s antiaircraft defenses, destroy its energy infrastructure and pound its front lines. Ukraine has needed to reinforce its defenses, including its trenches and its minefields, as Russian forces have advanced this spring. Kyiv is also facing a major shortage of trained soldiers, a problem that has no quick fix.

Ukraine’s challenges have been on display this week near Kharkiv. Russian forces have been pressing forward, forcing the evacuation of many front-line towns.

Military analysts and officials say those troops do not appear numerous enough to capture Kharkiv and that the tactic may be designed to pull Ukrainian troops from elsewhere on the front, stretching and weakening its defenses.

“At this stage of the war, Russia has the strategic initiative and holds the material advantage. But it is not necessarily decisive. Much depends on what happens in the coming months,” said Michael Kofman, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The recently passed supplemental is not a magic wand. It cannot instantly resolve the issues that the Ukrainian military currently is facing, which go well beyond shortages of ammunition,” he said.

Still, U.S. officials say they are moving as quickly as they can. Since April 24, they have announced $1.4 billion in aid for Ukraine using the presidential drawdown authority, the fastest-moving type of assistance. The Biden administration last month also announced an additional $6 billion in slower-moving military assistance that it aims to use by the end of the year. And in coming weeks, the White House plans to finalize a long-term memorandum of understanding with the Ukrainians that would guarantee security assistance for the next decade.

U.S. diplomats and military strategists want to help Ukraine reinforce its defenses this year, planning no major counteroffensives, unlike the one last year that fizzled. Instead, they say, they hope Ukraine can hold its defensive lines, replenish its ranks, keep the Black Sea open for commercial shipping and tie up Russia’s military assets in Crimea so they are less of a threat.

If Kyiv can rebuild the strength of its military, Ukraine will be in a better position next year, U.S. officials and analysts say.

“I’m not saying victory is inevitable,” said Daniel Fried, a retired senior State Department official who is a fellow at the Atlantic Council. “But there is a reasonable scenario.”

(c) 2024, The Washington Post · Michael Birnbaum 


3 COMMENTS

  1. Wow. The lengths the Compost goes thru to spin everything about these actors is pathetic, unless you’re a brainwashed nincompoop.

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