U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken declared Monday that “Russia is failing” in its war aims, as deadly new fighting flared in Ukraine’s eastern battle zone and Russian forces reportedly aimed a round of airstrikes at rail facilities in the country’s west and center.
Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III, who traveled with Blinken to the Ukrainian capital to meet with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy on Sunday, added that Washington not only wanted to see Ukraine repel Moscow’s forces but also to see Russia “weakened to the point” where it cannot mount such aggression again.
Blinken and Austin made their remarks to reporters after crossing into Poland from Ukraine, following the first official U.S. visit to Kyiv since the war began two months ago. In a show of support, the two announced a fresh infusion of $300 million in military aid and a revived U.S. diplomatic presence in Ukraine.
“The first step in winning is believing that you can win,” Austin said after his and Blinken’s visit. “We believe that they can win if they have the right equipment, the right support, and we’re going to do everything we can … to ensure that gets to them.”
Zelenskyy, posting images of Sunday’s meeting in his Telegram channel, thanked the Biden administration for what he called “unprecedented help” at a “crucial moment” in the war.
The coming weeks will likely be critical militarily, analysts say, with Russia having announced its determination to seize the entire Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland. Moscow last week also signaled aspirations to win control of the country’s southern seacoasts, which would render Ukraine landlocked, crippling it economically.
The war, which has killed thousands and created an immense humanitarian disaster, has also sparked a refugee crisis whose scale has not been seen on the European continent since World War II.
Nearly 5.2 million Ukrainians have fled into exile, according to the latest figures from the United Nations refugee agency, and almost 8 million others are internally displaced, according to separate estimates from the U.N.’s International Organization for Migration.
The vast panorama of suffering, however, has not been reflected in major shifts on the battlefield. In the week since Russia embarked on a redoubled offensive in the east, its forces have made only “minor advances” along a 300-mile battlefront, Britain’s military intelligence said in an assessment Monday.
“Without sufficient logistical and combat support enablers in place, Russia has yet to achieve a significant breakthrough,” the assessment said.
Moscow last week claimed what would be its biggest victory of the war: control of the strategic southern port of Mariupol, on the Sea of Azov. But Ukrainian defenders continue to hold a last redoubt, a sprawling steelworks plant, which Russian President Vladimir Putin has ordered his troops to blockade.
Russia’s military Monday said it would temporarily halt hostilities at the plant to allow civilians also sheltering inside to be brought out safely. Col. Gen. Mikhail Mizintsev was quoted by the RIA-Novosti news agency as saying civilians who emerged would be transported in any direction they chose.
Ukraine swiftly spurned the Russian offer, with its deputy prime minister, Iryna Vereshchuk, saying on Telegram that a unilaterally announced evacuation plan “does not provide security.” Kyiv for weeks has accused Moscow of sending thousands of Ukrainians trying to flee Mariupol to Russian-controlled areas or to Russia itself.
Putin’s order to besiege rather than directly attack the giant Azovstal plant means that “many Russian units remain fixed in the city and cannot be redeployed,” the British assessment said. The fight for Mariupol, it added, has “exhausted many Russian units and reduced their combat effectiveness.”
Mariupol remains largely cut off from the outside world, but may prove the scene of the war’s worst mass atrocities against civilians. Municipal authorities say an estimated 20,000 people have died in bombardment or of hunger and privation since the city came under attack in the first days of the war.
In his remarks in Poland, Blinken hammered on the theme that Moscow, despite superior firepower, has not succeeded in subduing its smaller neighbor. So far in the war, Russia has ravaged whole Ukrainian cities but also suffered setbacks, including a failed bid to capture Kyiv and the loss of its Black Sea flagship to what Ukrainian and Western officials said was a missile attack.
“When it comes to Russia’s war aims, Russia is failing. Ukraine is succeeding,” Blinken said. “Russia has sought as its principal aim to totally subjugate Ukraine, to take away its sovereignty, to take away its independence. That has failed.”
Following Blinken’s announcement of a renewed U.S. diplomatic presence in Ukraine, the White House said Monday that President Joe Biden would nominate Bridget Brink, currently the U.S. ambassador to Slovakia, as the next U.S. ambassador to Kyiv. The post has remained officially vacant since the previous ambassador, Marie Yovanovitch, was removed by then-President Donald Trump three years ago.
Western unity over the war has been a linchpin of the Biden administration’s policy toward Putin, and most European Union leaders breathed a sigh of relief over French President Emmanuel Macron’s reelection victory Sunday over far-right challenger Marine Le Pen.
Washington and its European allies have so far acted mainly in concert in punishing Putin economically for the war and providing Ukraine with weapons, but a victory by Le Pen could have seriously disrupted that joint strategy.
Zelenskyy tweeted his congratulations to Macron, calling him, in French, a “true friend” of Ukraine. Putin, whose cordial relationship with Le Pen became a campaign issue, also congratulated Macron.
As fighting continued to rage, Russia’s defense ministry said that overnight and early Monday, its air force hit 56 targets it described as Ukrainian military infrastructure. Moscow also claimed to have hit a big oil refinery northwest of the central city of Dnipro.
Dnipro itself — a city of almost 1 million people that some consider the gateway to the Donbas region — felt almost normal, with shops open, restaurants operating and even traffic on the streets. By contrast, another key Donbas city, Kramatorsk, heard a steady soundtrack of explosions and sirens reverberating across abandoned roads.
Reflecting concerns about stepped-up Russian attacks outside the eastern battle zone, the Kyiv regional administration said that starting Monday, the capital will be placed under an ongoing curfew between 10 p.m. and 5 a.m. Russia broke off its attempt to capture Kyiv nearly a month ago.
Elsewhere, Ukrainian officials took stock of death and damage from airstrikes that rained down unabated Sunday, when Eastern rite Christians celebrated Easter.
Luhansk, one of the two provinces that make up the Donbas, came under heavy shelling on the holiday, provincial Gov. Serhiy Haidai wrote Monday on Telegram. He said structures set ablaze included three high-rise buildings and four private homes.
Reports also emerged early Monday that five railway facilities in the country’s west and center had come under fire, causing a yet-undetermined number of casualties. The head of Ukraine’s railways, Oleksandr Kamyshin, said information about the attacks was still being gathered.
One of the strikes was reported to have hit not far from Lviv, Ukraine’s main western hub, which has largely escaped the brunt of the fighting. The regional governor, Maksym Kozytsky, said a missile struck a rail facility at Krasne, about 25 miles east of Lviv, setting it ablaze.
Earlier this month, in one of the most devastating single attacks of the war, about 60 people were killed at a train station in Kramatorsk as they waited for transportation out of the battle zone.
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