Blinken, in a somber visit to Kyiv, reasserts U.S. support for Ukraine

In this photo provided by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy speaks during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Kyiv, Ukraine, Tuesday, May 14, 2024. Blinken arrived in Kyiv on Tuesday in an unannounced diplomatic mission to reassure Ukraine that it has American support as it struggles to defend against increasingly intense Russian attacks. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

Even as fierce new clashes erupt, one of Ukraine’s toughest fights these days is taking place off the battlefield: persuading allies that its outgunned, outnumbered army can ultimately prevail, and that billions of dollars in Western military assistance is money well spent.

President Volodymyr Zelensky made that case Tuesday to Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who was visiting Kyiv for the first time since April’s long-delayed congressional approval of a $61-billion weapons package — perhaps the last major American assistance for some time to come.

The two met as Ukraine was attempting to fend off a Russian cross-border onslaught that began last week in the country’s northeast, the most concerted push of its kind since the early days of the war, which set off street-by-street fighting near the frontier and forced thousands of civilians to flee relentless bombardment.

Despite the war’s grim backdrop, Blinken sought a few moments away from staid diplomacy.

After a day of meetings, the 62-year-old secretary of State, whose Instagram bio identifies him as a “(very) amateur guitarist,” hit a popular Kyiv nightspot to play rhythm guitar with a local band. The song selection: Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

Blinken addressed the crowd before the band launched into its rendition of the 1989 hit, paying tribute to soldiers and civilians dying in Ukraine’s northeast and elsewhere in the country.

“They’re fighting not just for a free Ukraine, but a free world,” he said. “And the free world is with you too.”

The tone of the day’s talks was undeniably somber.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, surrounded by security officers, walks in Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, center, surrounded by security officers, walks in Independence Square in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Tuesday. (Efrem Lukatsky / Associated Press)

“We know this is a challenging time,” Blinken told Zelensky. Arriving U.S. military aid, he said, is “going to make a real difference against the ongoing Russian aggression on the battlefield.”

Zelensky replied with thanks for the new weaponry already beginning to reach Ukraine — coupled with familiar pleas for additional help.

Read more: Pummeled by airstrikes, Ukrainians in Kharkiv live in defiance of Russia

“People are under attack — civilians, warriors, everybody,” the Ukrainian leader said, asking for two Patriot air-defense batteries.

Analysts said if Russia advances farther in Kharkiv province, it will again place the city of more than 1.3 million people, already pummeled by Russian missiles and so-called glide bombs, within range of punishing artillery barrages.

In some ways, the Blinken visit pointed up the same delicate line Zelensky has trod since the start of Russia’s full-scale invasion more than two years ago: impressing upon Western partners that Ukraine’s military needs are urgent and dire, and at the same time asserting that the fight is not a hopeless one.

Read more: Russia tries to breach Ukraine's defenses in the Kharkiv region

And even while thanking Western governments for support, Zelensky bluntly declared that delays — whether bureaucratic holdups or political disputes such as the GOP infighting that blocked U.S. assistance for six months — translate directly into loss of civilian and military lives.

“We need to significantly speed up the supply process,” the Ukrainian leader said in an address to compatriots on Tuesday night. “Currently, the time gap between the announcement of packages and the actual appearance of weapons on the front line is too large.”

Blinken had a nuanced message to deliver as well: looking ahead to the day that Ukraine “stands strongly on its own feet militarily, but also economically and democratically” — suggesting that even unstinting support cannot continue indefinitely.

Dignitaries’ war-zone visits like these are commonplace, but traveling to the Ukrainian capital is still dangerous enough that such visits are not announced in advance. It’s not possible to fly in to Kyiv; Blinken arrived via overnight train from Poland.

Read more: In Ukraine, relief over U.S. aid vote — and fear over what an angry Russia will do next

At the Kremlin, Russian President Vladimir Putin, newly sworn in for an essentially uncontested fifth term in office, was busy signaling his intent to pursue his war aims for as long as necessary.

Over the weekend, the Kremlin announced the appointment of a new defense minister — an economist, Andrei Belousov, who will be tasked with harnessing the power of Russia’s military-industrial complex to sustain the fight.

Putin is also traveling this week to Beijing for a meeting with China’s President Xi Jinping, at which he is expected to press for a continuation of the partnership that has helped the Kremlin escape the effects of Western wartime sanctions, reap robust oil and gas revenues and obtain needed technology and spare parts — though China does not directly supply Russia with weapons.

Read more: Ukrainians contemplate the once unthinkable: Losing the war with Russia

For all of the solidarity Blinken extended to Zelensky, Ukraine is keenly aware that in a U.S. election year, backing for the war amounts to a significant expenditure of political capital.

Other major Western allies are also calibrating their own longer-term plans for Ukraine with an eye on November’s U.S. election.

Britain was attempting to smooth over a flap that arose over Foreign Secretary David Cameron’s recent pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago, former President Trump’s Florida resort.

Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper reported over the weekend that Cameron had made the case to Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee, that aid to Ukraine now would set favorable terms for Trump to swiftly negotiate a peace deal if he regained office.

The British defense secretary, Grant Shapps, clarified in a radio interview Tuesday that Britain would not try to force Ukraine to accept a peace treaty that entailed a loss of territory.

Ukraine garnered additional support Tuesday from France, whose government on Tuesday announced that unspecified new military aid would be arriving soon, following a phone conversation between Zelensky and President Emmanuel Macron.

Ukraine is also hoping to gain pledges of ongoing support at a peace summit in Switzerland next month — to which Russia has not been invited — and at gatherings this summer, including a NATO summit in July in Washington, marking the alliance’s 75th birthday.

For the government in Kyiv, though, the short-term picture is clouded. Russia has deployed about 2,000 troops in a drive toward the Kharkiv province town of Vovchansk, according to Ukrainian military officials.

The Russian forces were making “tactically significant advances” in what appeared to be an attempt to establish a buffer zone along the frontier north of Kharkiv city, according to the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War.

Read more: In Ukraine's old imperial city, pastel palaces are in jeopardy, but black humor survives

Ukraine is already struggling to hold key positions in the country’s east, and analysts have said the Russian push in Kharkiv could divert troops needed to blunt advances elsewhere. Ukraine’s general staff on Tuesday reported two dozen separate attacks in the partly Russian-occupied Donetsk province.

The regional governor, Oleh Sinegubov, said on Ukrainian television that the latest fighting in the northeast had set off street-to-street battles on the outskirts of Vovchansk, the largest town in the area, most of whose inhabitants have fled.

The governor reported two deaths in the latest shelling and the evacuation of more than 7,500 civilians.

“The situation is under control,” Zelensky said in his nightly address. But he added: “Everything is quite tense.”

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.