Blinken delivers message of US support to Kyiv as thousands flee Kharkiv region

US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has arrived in Kyiv delivering a message that Washington remains committed to supporting Ukraine as the country’s forces face their toughest situation on the battlefield for months.

Russia in recent days has launched an offensive in the north-eastern Kharkiv region, forcing thousands to flee their homes, and on Tuesday hit the centre of Kharkiv, the country’s second biggest city, with airstrikes.

A map showing recent Russian advances in Ukraine, marked in orange

Blinken’s visit came three weeks after Joe Biden signed a $60bn aid package for Ukraine, following months of blocking by elements of the Republican party. Ukrainian officials have said the delay in US weapons made a difficult situation at the front even worse.

“We know this is a challenging time,” Blinken said before meeting Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. “The assistance is now on the way, some of it has already arrived and more of it will be arriving … And that’s going to make a real difference against the ongoing Russian aggression on the battlefield.”

Zelenskiy thanked Blinken for the US assistance, but said air defence remained the “biggest problem” for Ukraine and asked for two new Patriot batteries for the Kharkiv region. Hours later residential buildings were hit in central Kharkiv. Officials said 16 people had been injured, including three children.

The new Russian offensive in the surrounding region risks putting Kharkiv back in Russian artillery range for the first time since 2022. Russia has seized a number of villages in recent days and is now focused on the town of Vovchansk, which had a prewar population of about 17,000. Vovchansk was occupied by Russia in 2022, and if it fell to the Russians it would be the first town previously liberated by Ukrainian forces to come under renewed occupation.

Kharkiv’s regional governor, Oleh Syniehubov, said Russian shelling killed two people in Vovchansk on Tuesday. Thousands of people have fled their homes in the town and surrounding areas, citing an intensity of attacks greater than anything they had previously experienced.

“For five days we never left the house, we didn’t see anyone, we were so afraid to go out we never even opened the door,” Natalia Yurchenko, who had just left Vovchansk, told Reuters.

Ukraine’s military spy chief, Kyrylo Budanov, said he believed Ukrainian forces had been able to stabilise the situation and halt a further advance. “The enemy is, in principle, already blocked at the lines that it was able to reach,” he said.

Serhii Kuzan, the director of the Ukrainian Security and Cooperation Center in Kyiv, said: “Kharkiv is not the priority front for the Russians.” He believed Russia’s main goal was to stretch Ukraine’s forces on other parts of the frontline, with a view to taking territory in the Donbas region, particularly around the town of Chasiv Yar.

Kuzan said the delay in US aid had had “direct consequences” on the battlefield. “At the front, the guys have been saying that they can see the Russians, they could target them, but they have nothing to hit them with. It’s an incredibly demoralising factor,” he said.

The push in the Kharkiv region has stretched Ukraine’s already weary forces further, as the country also launches a new mobilisation drive to fill the depleted ranks at the frontline.

David Lammy, Britain’s shadow foreign secretary, said Ukrainian officials had described the current moment on the battlefield as “critical” in a series of meetings he had with top officials in Kyiv.

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“Clearly now that there is a full complement of aid from the United States, from the EU and from us [the UK], they are in a stronger position, but they are not where they would have liked to have been had there not been the delays, and therefore the immediate months are tough,” said Lammy in an interview with the Guardian in Kyiv.

Lammy traveled to Ukraine with the shadow defence secretary, John Healey, to offer assurances to Ukrainian officials that a future Labour government would continue to support Ukraine and be committed to keeping a recent government pledge to spend £3bn a year on aid to Ukraine.

“From the start, the government has had the fullest Labour support for all the military support we’ve provided to Ukraine,” said Healey. “We fully back the increase in funding for Ukraine for this year and the years ahead, and that’s a commitment we wanted the Ukrainians to hear from us, ahead of the election.”

While British support for Ukraine reaches across parties, there is more doubt about how a potential change of president in the US may affect Washington’s position. Blinken came to Kyiv with a message that the US was in it for the long haul, though many in Kyiv wonder how things could change should Donald Trump return to the presidency.

As well as meeting with Zelenskiy, Blinken also visited a Kyiv pizza restaurant run by military veterans with his Ukrainian counterpart, Dmytro Kuleba. On Tuesday evening, he gave a speech at a Kyiv university, lauding Ukraine’s “strategic success” and attempting to inject an air of positivity about the future.

In a speech designed to appeal to Ukrainian sentiments, Blinken quoted the national poet Taras Shevchenko, and paid homage to Ukraine’s courage on the battlefield and innovation at home. “With each passing month, the work we’re doing together moves Ukraine closer to membership in the European Union and Nato … As the war goes on, Russia is going back in time, Ukraine is moving forward,” he said.

He also said the US would push to make seized Russian assets available to Ukraine, saying they should be “used to remedy the damage that Putin continues to cause”.

The Guardian

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