US secretary of state Antony Blinken has said Russia is failing in its war aims and “Ukraine is succeeding”.
His secrecy-shrouded visit to Kyiv along with defence secretary Lloyd Austin was the highest-level American visit to the capital since Russia invaded in late February.
They told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and his advisers that the US will provide more than 300 million dollars (£234 million) in foreign military financing and had approved a 165 million dollar (£128 million) sale of ammunition.
Mr Blinken told reporters near the Polish-Ukrainian border on Monday: “We had an opportunity to demonstrate directly our strong ongoing support for the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people. This was, in our judgment, an important moment to be there to have face-to-face conversations in detail.”
Mr Zelensky hailed the talks as “encouraging” and “effective”.
Speaking in Monday’s video address, he said the US is offering “powerful” support to his country. Mr Zelensky added that they agreed “on further steps to strengthen the armed forces of Ukraine and meet all the priority needs of our army”.
He noted that ramping up sanctions against Moscow was also on the meeting’s agenda.
Mr Austin said Mr Zelensky’s response to the aid was deep appreciation for what was being given but “he has the mindset that they want to win and we have the mindset that we want to help them win”.
The talks came as Russia unleashed a string of attacks against Ukrainian rail and fuel facilities on Monday, striking crucial infrastructure far from the front line of its eastern offensive, which Britain said has yet to achieve a significant breakthrough.
Meanwhile, two fires were reported at oil facilities in western Russia. It was not clear what caused the blazes.
When Russia invaded on February 24, its apparent goal was a lightning offensive that would quickly take the capital and perhaps even topple the government in Kyiv. But the Ukrainians, aided by Western weapons, bogged down President Vladimir Putin’s troops and thwarted their push to Kyiv.
Moscow now says its focus is in the eastern region of the Donbas, but one senior military official says it also wants to control southern Ukraine. While both sides said the campaign in the east has begun, it has yet to gather steam.
A small group of Ukrainian troops holed up in a steel plant in the strategic city of Mariupol are tying down Russian forces, and keeping them from being added to the offensive elsewhere in the Donbas, Britain’s Ministry of Defence said on Monday.
Over the weekend, Russian forces launched fresh air strikes on the steel plant in an attempt to dislodge the estimated 2,000 fighters inside. An estimated 1,000 civilians are also sheltering in the steelworks, and the Russian military pledged to open a humanitarian corridor on Monday for them to leave.
Mariupol has endured fierce fighting since the start of the war because of its strategic location on the Sea of Azov. In addition to freeing up Russian troops, its capture would deprive Ukraine of a vital port and allow Moscow to establish a land corridor to the Crimean Peninsula, which it seized from Ukraine in 2014.
But for now, the British Defence Ministry said that Ukrainian forces have repelled numerous assaults in the past week and “inflicted significant cost on Russian forces”. It said, so far, Russia has “yet to achieve a significant breakthrough” since shifting its focus to the Donbas.
Instead, Russian missiles and war planes struck far behind the front line of that offensive on Monday.
Oleksandr Kamyshin, the head of the state-run Ukrainian Railways, said five railway facilities in central and western Ukraine were hit on Monday, including a missile attack near the western city of Lviv.
Serhiy Borzov, the governor of Ukraine’s central Vinnytsia region, said there were casualties after rocket strikes targeting “critical infrastructure”. It was not clear if that referred to the attacks on the railways.
Russia also destroyed an oil refinery in Kremenchuk in central Ukraine, along with fuel depots there, Russian Defence Ministry spokesman Maj Gen Igor Konashenkov said. In all, Russian warplanes destroyed 56 Ukrainian targets overnight, he said.
Meanwhile, a major fire erupted early Monday at an oil depot in a Russian city about 60 miles from the Ukrainian border, Russia’s Emergencies Ministry said. No cause was given for the blaze.
The oil depot in Bryansk is owned by a subsidiary of the Russian state-controlled company Transneft, which operates the Druzhba pipeline that carries crude west to other European countries.
A Russian news report said that another oil storage facility in Bryansk also caught fire early Monday.
In footage later released by the Ukrainian presidency of the meeting with top US officials, Mr Blinken praised the “extraordinary courage and leadership and success that you’ve had in pushing back this horrific Russian aggression”.
“We got used to seeing you on video around the world, but it’s great, it’s good to see you in person,” he said with a smile.
Mr Austin said at the news conference that “the world has been inspired” by Ukraine in the war and that America will continue its support. “What you’ve done in repelling the Russians in the Battle of Kyiv is extraordinary,” he said.
Mr Zelensky had announced on Saturday that he would meet the US officials in Kyiv on Sunday, but Joe Biden’s administration refused to confirm that and declined to discuss details of a possible visit even though planning had been under way for more than a week.
Journalists who travelled to Poland with Mr Austin and Mr Blinken were barred from reporting on the trip until it ended, were not allowed to accompany them on their overland journey into Ukraine, and were prohibited from specifying where in south-east Poland they waited for the Cabinet members to return. Officials at the State Department and the Pentagon cited security concerns.
Mr Austin and Mr Blinken announced a total of 713 million dollars (£555 million) in foreign military financing for Ukraine and 15 allied and partner countries; some 322 million dollars (£251 million) of that is earmarked for Kyiv. The remainder will be split among Nato members and other nations that have provided Ukraine with critical military supplies since the war with Russia began, officials said.
Such financing is different from previous US military assistance for Ukraine. It is not a donation of drawn-down US Defence Department stockpiles, but rather cash that countries can use to purchase supplies that they might need.
The new money, along with the sale of 165 million dollars (£128 million) in non-US made ammunition that is compatible with Soviet-era weapons the Ukrainians use, takes the total amount of American military assistance to Ukraine to 3.7 billion dollars (£2.9 billion) since the invasion, officials said.
US officials said they believed the new assistance would satisfy at least some of the Ukrainians’ urgent pleas for more help. New artillery, including howitzers, continues to be delivered at a rapid pace to Ukraine’s military, which is being trained on its use in neighbouring countries, the officials said.
On the diplomatic front and as expected, President Biden announced on Monday his nomination of Bridget Brink to serve as US ambassador to Ukraine.
Ms Brink, a career foreign service officer, has served since 2019 as ambassador to Slovakia. She previously held assignments in Serbia, Cyprus, Georgia and Uzbekistan as well as with the White House National Security Council. The post requires confirmation by the US Senate.
Mr Blinken also told Ukraine’s foreign minister that the small staff from the US embassy in Kyiv, which has relocated to Poland from temporary offices in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv, will begin making day trips to Lviv in the coming days.
Officials said the US had accelerated its review of security conditions in the capital and that the State Department will reopen the embassy there as soon as the situation allows.
Mr Biden has accused Russian President Vladimir Putin of genocide for the destruction and death wrought on Ukraine. On Thursday, the US leader said he would provide a new package of 800 million dollars (£623 million) in military aid to Ukraine that included heavy artillery and drones.
Congress approved 6.5 billion dollars (£5.1 billino) for military assistance last month as part of 13.6 billion dollars (£10.6 billion) in spending for Ukraine and allies in response to the Russian invasion.
From Poland, Mr Blinken plans to return to Washington while Mr Austin will head to Ramstein in Germany for a meeting Tuesday of Nato defence ministers and other donor countries.
That discussion will look at battlefield updates from the ground, additional security assistance for Ukraine and longer-term defence needs in Europe, including how to step up military production to fill gaps caused by the war in Ukraine, officials said. More than 20 nations are expected to send representatives to the meeting.