Subscribe
Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, greets U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken prior to their meeting in Kyiv on May 14, 2024.

Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, greets U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken prior to their meeting in Kyiv on May 14, 2024. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)

KYIV, Ukraine — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken sought Tuesday to rally the spirits of glum Ukrainians facing a fierce new Russian offensive, assuring them during a visit to Kyiv that they are not alone and that billions of dollars in American military aid on its way after months of political delays will make a “real difference” on the battlefield.

After a day of meetings with senior officials, civil society figures and university students when he exhorted them against being discouraged, Blinken took to the stage at a bar in Ukraine’s capital to play rhythm guitar and sing with a local band on Neil Young’s 1989 hit “Rockin’ in the Free World.”

The performance, and a series of sunny comments from Blinken about Ukraine’s battlefield prospects, was a startling juxtaposition to what analysts have called one of the most dangerous moments for Ukraine since Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022. Russian forces have taken swaths of territory along Ukraine’s northeast border, and thousands of civilians in the Kharkiv region have fled the increasingly intense attacks.

But Blinken told Ukrainian leaders during his unannounced visit to Kyiv that despite a lengthy delay in U.S. military aid that left them vulnerable to these renewed Russian military strikes, more weaponry is coming and some has already arrived.

He made the case even as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed to him personally for more air defense systems to protect civilians under intense Russian fire in the northeast. Blinken, on fourth trip to Kyiv since the war began, also lambasted Russian President Vladimir Putin for underestimating Ukraine’s determination to fight back.

“We meet at a critical moment,” he told students at the Kyiv Polytechnic Institute. “The coming weeks and months will demand a great deal of Ukrainians, who have already sacrificed so much. I’ve come to Ukraine with a message: You are not alone.”

He also pushed back on the notion that time is on Putin’s side.

“Putin has it wrong — time is on Ukraine’s side,” Blinken said. “As the war goes on, Russia is going back in time. Ukraine is moving forward.”

But the reality on the ground is that Moscow’s troops have captured about 40 to 50 square miles in recent days in the northeast Kharkiv region, including at least seven villages, according to open-source monitoring analysts. People had already left most of those villages, but the fighting drove out thousands of others.

Seeking to take advantage of Ukrainian shortages in manpower and weapons while new U.S. assistance is in transit, Russian forces also have been making a concerted push in the east to drive deeper into the partly occupied Donetsk region. The main focus of Russian attacks Tuesday was Pokrovsk, just inside the Ukrainian border in Donetsk, where the Kremlin’s forces launched 24 assaults, the Ukrainian general staff said in a report.

“We know this is a challenging time,” Blinken told Zelenskyy after arriving on an overnight train from Poland. But, he added that U.S. military aid is “going to make a real difference against the ongoing Russian aggression on the battlefield.”

Congress approved a long-delayed foreign assistance package last month that sets aside $60 billion in aid for Ukraine, much of which will go toward replenishing badly depleted artillery and air defense systems. Since then, the Biden administration has announced $1.4 billion in short-term military assistance and $6 billion in longer-term support.

Zelenskyy thanked Blinken for the aid but said more is necessary, including two Patriot air defense systems urgently needed to protect Kharkiv.

“The people are under attack: civilians, warriors, everybody. They’re under Russian missiles,” he said.

Artillery, air defense interceptors and long-range ballistic missiles have already been delivered, some of them already to the front lines, said a senior U.S. official traveling with Blinken who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity ahead of Blinken’s meetings.

Moscow’s renewed offensive in Kharkiv is the most significant border incursion since the early days of the war, following months when the roughly 620-mile front line barely budged.

More than 7,500 civilians have been evacuated from the area, according to authorities. At the same time, the Kremlin’s forces are expanding their push to the northern border regions of Sumy and Chernihiv, Ukrainian officials say, and Kyiv’s outgunned and outnumbered soldiers are struggling to hold them back.

Troops fought street to street on the outskirts of Vovchansk, among the largest towns in the Kharkiv area, regional Gov. Oleh Syniehubov said on national television. Two civilians were killed in Russian shelling Tuesday, he said.

The U.N. human rights office said the battles are taking a heavy toll.

“We are deeply concerned at the plight of civilians in Ukraine,” Liz Throssell, spokeswoman for the office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, said in Geneva. “In the Kharkiv region, the situation is dire.”

Russia in recent weeks also has launched wide attacks on Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. The operator of the national high-voltage electricity grid, Ukrenergo, said it was starting “controlled emergency shutdowns” for industries and households because of “a significant shortage of electricity in the system due to Russian shelling and an increase in consumption due to the cold weather.”

Blinken told Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal that the U.S. intends to support Kyiv beyond the war’s end.

“The United States is determined, determined to help Ukraine succeed — succeed both in the battlefield victory but also succeed, as we would say, in winning the peace and building the strongest possible Ukraine,” Blinken said.

But delays in U.S. assistance, particularly since the Israel-Hamas war has preoccupied top administration officials, have triggered deep concerns in Kyiv and Europe. Blinken, for example, has visited the Middle East seven times since the war in Gaza began in October. His last trip to Kyiv was in September.

Blinken went with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba for lunch at a Kyiv pizza restaurant founded by Ukrainian veterans, calling it “superb.” On Blinken’s last visit, the pair ate at a recently reopened McDonald’s restaurant.

Blinken and other U.S. officials said despite some recent setbacks, Ukraine could still claim significant victories. Those include reclaiming some 50% of the territory Russian forces took in the early months of the war, boosting its economic standing and improving transportation and trade links, not least through military successes in the Black Sea.

Meanwhile, Putin plans to make a two-day state visit to China this week, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said. Beijing has backed Moscow politically in the war and has sent machine tools, electronics and other items seen as contributing to the Russian war effort, without actually exporting weaponry.

Associated Press writers Illia Novikov in Kyiv and Jamey Keaten in Geneva contributed to this report.

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign up to receive a daily email of today's top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign Up Now