American diplomats will start returning to Ukraine this week, first to the western city of Lviv and then eventually to the capital, Kyiv.
The United States is also providing further foreign military financing to Ukraine to help the country obtain more advanced weapons and air defense systems to fend off Russian attacks, according to senior U.S. officials.
U.S. President Joe Biden will formally nominate Bridget Brink, currently U.S. ambassador to the Slovak Republic, to be U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.
“This would be to underscore our commitments (to Ukraine). We will seek to have our diplomats returned to our embassy in Kyiv as soon as possible,” a senior State Department official said.
Several European Union and NATO member countries are sending their diplomats back to Kyiv, including Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Italy, Slovakia and Slovenia. The U.K. government announced Friday that it would shortly reopen the British Embassy in Kyiv.
The return of foreign diplomats is seen as a sign of some semblance of safety in Ukraine after almost two months of Russia’s shelling and bombing.
“We intend to obligate more than $713 million in foreign military financing,” the State official said. “This includes funding for Ukraine and 15 other allies and partner nations in Central and Eastern Europe, in the Balkans. … And it will provide support for capabilities Ukraine needs, especially for the fight in the Donbas.”
With the new assistance in foreign military financing, the U.S. would have committed about $3.4 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion began, and more than $4.3 billion since the start of the Biden administration.
Sunday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov in Kyiv.
Blinken and Austin’s visit to Ukraine is the highest-level visit by an American delegation since the start of Russia’s war on Ukraine on February 24.
It also came ahead of Tuesday’s consultations between the U.S. and dozens of allies at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, where Austin will discuss Ukraine’s long-term defense needs.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov will attend Tuesday’s meetings.
On Tuesday’s agenda: an update on battlefield conditions, Ukraine’s resistance amid Russia’s attacks, upcoming security assistance to Ukraine, and Ukraine’s willingness and ability to move away from Russian-made systems.
“This isn’t about (Ukraine’s appeal to) NATO membership. It’s about helping them with their long-term defense needs going forward with a potential migration away from Soviet systems,” a senior defense official said.
“One of the things we expect to talk about in Ramstein on Tuesday is additional contributions by allies and partners on the systems, weapons and ammunition that the Ukrainians need the most,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said in a briefing in Poland on Sunday.
Kirby said the U.S. has accelerated major security assistance package deliveries to Ukraine in the past 10 days, and some of them are already arriving. The U.S. is not seeing any indication that those shipments are being interdicted by Russian forces.
Sunday, Ukrainian officials said Russian forces launched a new airstrike on the Azovstal steel factory in Mariupol, where Ukrainian forces have been holed up and defiantly refusing Russian demands to surrender.
Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a tight blockade of the facility that Russian forces have struggled to take over from perhaps thousands of Ukraine fighters and civilians who have remained in control of the plant with its labyrinth of tunnels and passageways.
In a lengthy Saturday night news conference in a Kyiv subway station, Zelenskyy said he was looking for the Americans to produce results, both in terms of arms and security guarantees.
“You can’t come to us empty-handed today, and we are expecting not just presents or some kind of cakes, we are expecting specific things and specific weapons,” he said.
In each of the past two weeks, President Biden has approved $800 million in shipments of more arms for Ukraine, along with $500 million in economic assistance.
With congressional approval for military assistance for Ukraine nearly exhausted, Biden said he would seek approval for more aid, part of the West’s arming of Ukraine in its fight against Russia that falls short of sending troops to fight alongside Ukrainian forces.
Zelenskyy has repeatedly pleaded for more heavy weapons, including long-range air defense systems, as well as warplanes.
Zelenskyy’s meeting with Austin and Blinken was set to take place as Ukrainians and Russians observed Orthodox Easter. Zelenskyy is Jewish, but speaking from Kyiv’s ancient St. Sophia Cathedral, he cited Ukrainians’ wishes for the holiday.
“The great holiday today gives us great hope and unwavering faith that light will overcome darkness, good will overcome evil, life will overcome death, and, therefore, Ukraine will surely win!” he said.
But the Russian bombardment remains a constant threat for Ukraine. The Russian military reported that it hit 423 Ukrainian targets overnight, mostly in the eastern Donbas industrial region, and destroyed 26 Ukrainian military sites, including an explosives factory and several artillery depots.
The International Committee of the Red Cross said in a statement Sunday that it is “deeply alarmed by the situation in Mariupol, where the population is in dire need of assistance.” The ICRC said, “Immediate and unimpeded humanitarian access is urgently required to allow for the voluntary safe passage of thousands of civilians and hundreds of wounded out of the city, including from the Azovstal plant area.”
After the Blinken-Austin visit, Zelenskyy is set to meet Thursday with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres. The U.N. chief is scheduled to meet with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara Monday and Putin in Moscow on Tuesday.
British officials said Saturday that Russian troops haven’t gained significant new ground despite announcing a renewed offensive along the eastern front, while Ukraine declared a nationwide curfew ahead of Orthodox Easter on Sunday.
Ukraine said Russian forces obstructed attempts to evacuate civilians from the besieged port city of Mariupol.
“The evacuation was thwarted,” Mariupol city official Petro Andryushchenko said on Telegram, adding that about 200 people gathered at the government-appointed evacuation meeting point, but that Russian forces “dispersed” them.
Some information for this story came from The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse.