By Simon Lewis
SOUTHEASTERN POLAND (Reuters) -Washington’s top diplomat and its defense chief used the first official U.S. visit to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February to announce a gradual return of U.S. diplomats including a new ambassador and over $300 million in new military aid to Kyiv.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin traveled to Poland on Saturday in a previously undisclosed trip, and took a train the following day into Ukraine where they met President Volodomyr Zelenskiy and other top Ukrainian officials.
“In terms of Russia’s war aims, Russia has already failed and Ukraine has already succeeded,” Blinken told a briefing in Poland after the two officials returned from the meeting.
The visit was designed to show Western support for Ukraine and the cabinet secretaries also pledged new aid worth $713 million for Zelenskiy’s government and countries in the region, where Russia’s invasion has raised fears of wider aggression by Moscow.
It also highlighted the shift in the conflict since Ukrainian forces, armed with a massive influx of weapons from the West, successfully repelled a Russian assault on Kyiv.
“Our focus in the meeting was to talk about those things that would enable us to win the current fight and also build for tomorrow,” Austin told the briefing, calling the meeting in Kyiv “very productive.”
Blinken and Austin told Zelenskiy of more than $322 million in new foreign military financing for Ukraine, taking total U.S. security assistance since the invasion began to about $3.7 billion, a senior State Department official said.
“It will provide support for capabilities Ukraine needs, especially the fight in the Donbas,” the official said, referring to the southeastern region where Russian forces have regrouped and are trying to capture.
He said it would also help Ukraine’s armed forces transition to more advanced weapons and air defense systems, essentially NATO-capable systems.
Following their Kyiv visit, the White House announced on Monday that President Joe Biden was nominating veteran diplomat Bridget Brink as the new U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, acting to fill a crucial position that was vacant for nearly three years.
Brink, now serving as U.S. ambassador to Slovakia, has been a career diplomat for 25 years and worked in Uzbekistan and Georgia as well as at several senior positions across the State Department and White House National Security Council.
KYIV REOPENS TO WESTERN VISITS
Russia’s military shift hundreds of km (miles) eastwards to the Donbas region has allowed foreign leaders to visit Kyiv and some Western nations to resume their diplomatic presence in recent weeks, but Washington has been cautious about a return amid sporadic Russian missile attacks.
“We certainly saw people on the streets of Kyiv, evidence of the fact that the battle for Kyiv was won,” Blinken told the briefing, providing glimpses of the train journey from Poland.
“But that’s in stark contrast to what’s going on in other parts of Ukraine, in the south and the east, where the Russian brutality is just horrific.”
The U.S. delegation traveled directly to Kyiv by train and had little opportunity to speak to Ukrainians beyond the meeting with officials there, he added.
Earlier, U.S. officials had declined media requests to accompany the two officials into Ukraine, citing security concerns. They briefed reporters in Poland on condition the trip not be reported until the delegation was safely out of Ukraine.
Austin will now travel on to Germany to host counterparts from more than 20 nations and NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the U.S. air base at Ramstein to discuss Ukraine’s defense needs, a Pentagon official said.
The meeting Blinken and Austin held with Zelenskiy, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Defence Minister Oleksii Reznikov and other officials lasted nearly three hours, overrunning an allotted time of 90 minutes.
U.S. diplomats departed the Kyiv embassy nearly two weeks before the Feb. 24 invasion, moving some functions to the western city of Lviv before eventually relocating to Poland.
Diplomats will initially resume “day trips” across the border to Lviv in the coming week and officials are accelerating plans to return to Kyiv, the State Department official said.
“There’s no substitute for that face-to-face engagement, and of course there is a symbolism to being back in the country,” said the official, who briefed reporters in Poland on condition of anonymity.
MORE U.S. MILITARY AID
A separate tranche of nearly $400 million in new foreign military financing from Washington will go to 15 other nations in Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans, the State Department official said.
More than 50 Ukrainians were set to complete training on Monday to operate howitzer heavy artillery that Washington has begun sending to Ukraine in recent weeks as fighting now focuses on the flatter, more open Donbas region, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters in Poland.
U.S. military aid was arriving in Ukraine with “unimaginable speed,” Austin told Monday’s briefing, adding that after Biden’s Thursday approval of a new tranche of weapons, “on Saturday howitzers were showing up from that drawdown package”.
(Reporting by Simon Lewis; Editing by Daniel Wallis)