The United States’ top diplomat and defense chief were Sunday set to make their first wartime visits to Kyiv since Russia invaded Ukraine two months ago, with fierce battles raging in the east of the country.
The trip by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin comes as the war enters its third month with thousands dead and millions displaced.
A series of European leaders have already travelled to Kyiv to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky and underscore their support, but the United States – a leading donor of finance and weaponry – has yet to send any top officials.
In his daily video address Saturday night, Zelensky said he was preparing for “tomorrow’s important talks with American partners.” The State Department declined to comment on the highly sensitive trip by two of President Joe Biden’s top cabinet members.
Their visit comes as Russian forces show no sign of easing their attacks and after a missile strike on the southern city of Odessa that Ukraine said killed eight people, including an infant.
“Among those killed was a three-month-old baby girl. How did she threaten Russia? It seems that killing children is just a new national idea of the Russian Federation,” Zelensky said.
He also accused Russia of being a terrorist state and of acting like Nazis in the shattered port city of Mariupol, which has been devastated by weeks of intense bombardment.
“New facts about the crimes of the occupiers against our Mariupol residents are being revealed. New graves of people killed by the occupiers are being found. We are talking about tens of thousands of dead Mariupol residents,” he said.
The latest of many attempts to evacuate civilians from Mariupol failed Saturday, and an embattled unit of Ukrainian fighters holed up in tunnels under a sprawling steel mill there appeared in increasingly desperate straits.
Zelensky also issued a new call Saturday for a meeting with his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin “to end the war.”
“I think that whoever started this war will be able to end it,” Zelensky said, adding he was “not afraid” to meet the Russian leader, who attended an Orthodox Easter service in Moscow.
But he again stressed that Kyiv would abandon talks with Moscow if its troops in Mariupol were killed.
Zelensky also criticized a decision by UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres to visit Moscow on Tuesday, before heading to Kyiv.
“There is no justice and no logic in this order,” he said.
“The war is in Ukraine, there are no bodies in the streets of Moscow. It would be logical to go first to Ukraine, to see the people there, the consequences of the occupation,” he said.
Around 200 residents gathered at a designated evacuation point in Mariupol on Saturday but were “dispersed” by Russian forces, city official Petro Andryushchenko said on Telegram, adding: “The evacuation was thwarted.”
He claimed others had been told to board buses headed to places controlled by Russia.
Mariupol, which the Kremlin claims to have “liberated,” is pivotal to Russia’s war plans to forge a land bridge to Russian-occupied Crimea – and possibly beyond, as far as Moldova.