LONDON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on Sunday, making them the highest-ranking U.S. officials to visit Ukraine since the invasion there began on Feb. 24. The two secretaries pledged aid worth $713 million and announced that U.S. diplomats would return to Kyiv. Meanwhile, Russia announced a ceasefire for the thousands of civilians keeping shelter in the Azovstal steel plant in the besieged city of Mariupol.
U.S. officials visit Ukraine and pledge $713 million in new aid
Blinken and Austin made an unannounced trip to Ukraine on Sunday to meet with Zelensky and other officials. For security reasons the entire trip was shrouded in secrecy, and the U.S. government did not publicly acknowledge their presence until they were on the way out. The U.S. envoys approved a $165 million sale of ammunition for the war effort as well as another $300 million in foreign military financing, part of a new package worth $713 million. “Our focus in the meeting was to talk about those things that would enable us to win the current battle and also build for tomorrow,” Austin told reporters. “We talked about security force assistance. And we talked about training.”
‘Russia is failing’
After the meeting, Blinken spoke at the Polish-Ukrainian border. “The strategy that we’ve put in place, massive support for Ukraine, massive pressure against Russia, solidarity with more than 30 countries engaged in these efforts, is having real results,” the secretary of state said. “And we’re seeing that when it comes to Russia’s war aims, Russia is failing; Ukraine is succeeding.” Austin said the Ukrainians “can win if they have the right equipment, the right support.”
U.S. diplomats to return to Kyiv
It was also announced that U.S. diplomats would begin a gradual return to Ukraine later this week. Washington had pulled its diplomats from Ukraine prior to Russia’s invasion. "Since the start of hostilities, we've had a team across the border in Poland who has been handling this work for us," a defense official told reporters, according to the Agence France-Presse. "Starting this week, members of that team will be able to do day trips instead into Ukraine. Ultimately, [they will] resume presence in Kyiv."
Russian ambassador warns U.S. over military aid
Russia’s ambassador to Washington warned the U.S. against sending more arms to Ukraine. “We stressed the unacceptability of this situation when the United States of America pours weapons into Ukraine, and we demanded an end to this practice,” Anatoly Antonov said in an interview with Russian state TV, Reuters reports. The Kremlin had previously warned the U.S., in a formal note, of “unpredictable consequences” of delivering advanced armaments to Kyiv.
Kremlin announces ceasefire for Mariupol civilians
Russia’s Defense Ministry said its troops would stop hostilities to allow sheltering civilians to leave the Azovstal steel plant in the besieged city of Mariupol. Soldiers “from 14:00 Moscow time on April 25, 2022, will unilaterally stop any hostilities, withdraw units to a safe distance and ensure the withdrawal” of civilians, the ministry said in a statement.
The move comes as Ukraine appeals to the U.N to be the "initiator and guarantor" of a humanitarian corridor that would allow civilians to leave the steel plant. "A corridor announced unilaterally does not provide security, and therefore is not a humanitarian corridor," Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk wrote on Telegram. She added that representatives of the U.N. and the Red Cross should be present whenever a humanitarian corridor is established.
Mariupol’s mayor has estimated that 20,000 civilians have been killed in the city. Last Wednesday an adviser to the mayor said the 1,000 civilians inside the steel building, believed to be the last stronghold, had no access to “normal” supplies of food and water.
Last week a Russian official claimed that forces had “liberated” Mariupol after weeks of blockade and heavy bombardment. The city has enormous strategic significance for Moscow as it finishes a land bridge between the Crimean Peninsula — which it seized in 2014 — and mainland Russia.