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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

Blinken in Ukraine to show US support

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KYIV – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived Tuesday in Kyiv on an unannounced visit meant to reassure Ukrainians of continued US support and flow of weapons as Russia pummels the northeastern Kharkiv region.

Marking his fourth visit to Kyiv since the start of the Russian invasion in February 2022, Blinken arrived by overnight train from Poland and was due to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, according to an AFP journalist accompanying him.

The visit comes just weeks after the US Congress finally approved a $61 billion package of financial aid for Ukraine after months of political wrangling, unlocking much-needed arms for the country’s stretched troops.

The aid is expected to flow at an accelerated pace as Washington seeks to make up for lost months while Congress struggled to agree on assistance.

Blinken’s arrival came a day after Russia pummelled towns and villages in Ukraine’s northeastern Kharkiv region on Monday, days after launching a surprise ground offensive over the border that has forced thousands to evacuate.

The Ukrainian army acknowledged Russia was “achieving tactical success” after launching a ground assault on Friday that has sparked the evacuation of almost 6,000 people.

But President Volodymyr Zelensky stressed Ukraine had sent in reinforcements, and that a “counterattack” was ongoing.

“Our task is clear: to thwart Russia’s attempt to expand the war,” he said in an evening address.

Russia’s defense ministry said its troops had “improved the tactical position and dealt a blow to (Ukrainian) manpower” around border villages, including Lyptsi, and the town of Vovchansk.

Kateryna Stepanova, 74, who fled Lyptsi with her son, said several bombs had hit her street.

“We weren’t going to leave… but now this. Thankfully, we’re alive,” she said, sitting in a minibus at a gathering point for evacuees. 

“They are shelling the villages, firing everything they can,” Sergiy Kryvetchenko, deputy head of the Ukrainian military administration in Lyptsi, told AFP.

Guided aerial bombs are falling “like rain” said one serviceman, who was resting after fending off Russian assaults in Lyptsi.

Ukraine’s security council chief Oleksandr Lytvynenko said Moscow had mounted tens of thousands of troops against the Kharkiv region.

“There are a lot of Russians, quite a lot. About 50,000 were on the border. Now there are much more than 30,000 coming,” he told AFP.

The White House said Monday it was doing “everything” possible to rush weapons to Ukraine to battle the surprise Russian offensive.

“We’re doing everything humanly possible, both ourselves and our allies,” US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told reporters, saying a new arms package would be announced “in the coming days.”

Kharkiv regional governor Oleg Synegubov said 5,762 people had been evacuated so far since the start of the offensive.

“Today we plan to bring out around 1,600 local residents,” he added.

He also said it was necessary to move 113 children to safety from state children’s homes near the border.

The General Staff said that in the Kharkiv region, Russia carried out 11 attacks on Monday and launched eight air strikes.

It said Russia had “partial success” in capturing the village of Lukyantsi, but Ukraine halted its advance.

Synegubov said Russia had struck “more than 30” towns and villages.

On Monday evening, a missile hit Korotych, a settlement near the city of Kharkiv, killing a 38-year-old man and injuring three, police said.

Earlier attacks injured a 71-year-old woman in Lyptsi and a man, 69, in the town of Izyum, the governor said.

Ukraine’s army reported fighting in Vovchansk, where Russia was deploying “significant forces”, numbering up to five battalions.

In the southern Kherson region, two people were found dead after a strike hit a residential building, regional military administration chief Oleksandr Prokudin said.

Ukraine launched drone strikes on western Russia, a security source in Kyiv told AFP, hitting an oil terminal in the Belgorod border region and an electrical substation in the Lipetsk region.

Regional authorities in Russia’s Kursk border region said one woman was killed and three wounded when a drone struck several cars.

“First this trip is to send a strong signal of reassurance to the Ukrainians who are obviously in a very difficult moment both with grinding battle on the Eastern Front but also with the Russians now expanding some cross-border attacks into Kharkiv,” a senior US official who spoke on condition of anonymity told reporters aboard the train.

The secretary intends in particular to detail how US aid will “be executed in a fashion to help shore up their defences and enable them to increasingly take back the initiative on the battlefield.”

The last visit by a senior US official was in March, when National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan went to Ukraine.

Russia is “clearly throwing everything they have in the east and expanding the fighting to Kharkiv is representative of that strategy,” the official said.

“But we have a lot of confidence that the Ukrainians will increasingly be effective in pushing the Russians back as our assistance flows in both from the United States and other allies and partners.”

In addition to holding talks with Zelensky, Blinken is expected to meet with his counterpart Dmytro Kuleba as well as members of the civil society and additionally deliver a speech focused on “Ukraine’s strategic success”.

Also up for discussion is a bilateral defense agreement that the United States hopes to conclude before the NATO summit in Washington in July.

“The negotiations are in their final stages, we’re very close,” the US official said.

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