Blinken arrives in Ukraine amid doubts about offensive

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KYIV — Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Ukraine on Wednesday to boost support for Kyiv as its military makes only incremental gains against entrenched Russian forces, its defense minister resigned amid controversy and Congress is girding for fierce debates about future funding for the war.

The top U.S. diplomat, a close confidant of President Biden, is among Ukraine’s staunchest supporters within the administration, repeatedly pushing officials at home and abroad to provide more sophisticated weaponry to Kyiv and tamping down calls for a negotiated cease-fire with Moscow.

The two-day trip is Blinken’s fourth visit to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion started in February 2022 and his sixth since taking office. He is expected to announce more than $1 billion in new U.S. funding for Ukraine as Kyiv pleads for more economic and military assistance.

Blinken arrived Wednesday morning, meeting first with U.S. diplomats and personnel at the American embassy in Kyiv. He was also scheduled to hold a roundtable with civil society organizations to discuss anti-corruption efforts before observing a wreath-laying at a military ceremony alongside Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

Blinken’s event on anti-corruption is probably aimed at signaling that the Biden administration takes government malfeasance seriously while maintaining its confidence in Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who announced on Sunday his decision to replace Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov with Rustem Umerov, head of Ukraine’s State Property Fund.

Reznikov’s ouster comes amid a series of corruption controversies within the Defense Ministry related to the bribery of recruitment officers, and overpayment for food and other military supplies. Reznikov has not been charged or directly implicated in any of the scandals, and there is speculation in Kyiv that he will get another prominent post, perhaps as ambassador to the United Kingdom.

Zelensky has previously taken heavily publicized steps to showcase his resolve in fighting corruption before the arrival of prominent international visitors, as he did in February before a high-stakes meeting in Kyiv with European Union leaders.

Blinken arrived in the capital as Ukrainian troops are engaged in a difficult offensive to reclaim occupied areas in the country’s south, where Russian forces prepared for the attack by establishing heavily fortified defensive positions and mining huge swaths of territory. Those obstacles have proved extremely formidable.

A primary goal of the counteroffensive, which began in early June, is to push south and sever Russia’s “land bridge” to Crimea, a vital passageway that allows the Kremlin to supply its invading forces and that creates a protective buffer for the occupied peninsula, which Russia illegally invaded and annexed in 2014.

This year, Russia has fared better in defending its captured territory and it has inflicted large casualties on the Ukrainian side while taking significant losses of its own.

Ukraine has made some progress in recent weeks, claiming to take control of the village of Robotyne. But the operation has been slow, and Russian forces simultaneously are fighting to retake occupied territory they lost last year in the northeast.

In recent weeks, the U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Kyiv will fail to achieve a key goal of the offensive, retaking the southeastern city of Melitopol, an important transit hub that Moscow has turned into the occupied regional capital of Zaporizhzhia, one of four Ukrainian regions that Russian President Vladimir Putin has declared — illegally — to be annexed to Russia.

Privately, senior U.S. officials say Kyiv strayed from Washington’s guidance to concentrate a large mass of forces on a single breakthrough point rather than surging along multiple axes. Ukraine has pushed back on second-guessing about its strategy in the counteroffensive, insisting that it knows the war better and noting that it needs ammunition, not advice.

Blinken, however, has consistently sought to broadcast an upbeat assessment of Ukraine’s efforts, noting this summer that Kyiv has recaptured 50 percent of the territory Russia initially seized since its full-scale invasion.

As they traveled to Kyiv, Blinken’s aides were reluctant to provide an overall assessment on the offensive, saying part of the reason for the trip was to hear from Ukrainian officials about the latest state of play. “We’ll have more to say about that on the back end,” a senior State Department official told reporters traveling with the secretary, according to a readout of the conversation.

“Ukrainian forces have made some impressive advances in the south in particular, but also in the east in recent days and weeks. But I think what’s most important is that we get a real assessment from the Ukrainians themselves,” said the official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military matters.

Another reason for the trip is the upcoming gathering of world leaders at the U.N. General Assembly in New York this month, Blinken’s aides said.

“The Ukrainians have an important mission in New York to continue to explain, to their allies and partners around the world, what’s going on and their continued need for support,” the senior official said. “It’s important for us to continue to lead that global effort to support them. And so having a chance to consult and align before we get to New York is very, very important.”

Blinken’s public remarks in Ukraine will be closely watched by congressional Republicans who are weighing the Biden administration’s request for more than $20 billion in security, economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

“I urge Congress to pass this,” Blinken told reporters last month. “Our effort and resources, and those of allies and partners around the world, have enabled Ukrainians to fight for their lives, for their freedom, for their future.”

Since the start of the war, the Biden administration and Congress have directed more than $75 billion in aid to Ukraine, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.

Hudson reported from Washington.

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