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Thursday, June 30, 2022

US diplomats to return to Ukraine and fresh military aid unveiled after Blinken visit | Ukraine

Washington’s top diplomat and defence secretary have announced a gradual return of US diplomats to the country, fresh military financing, and the nomination of a new ambassador during the first official US visit to Ukraine since Russia invaded.

During talks in Kyiv secretary of state Antony Blinken and secretary of defence Lloyd Austin told Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelenskiy, the US would provide more than $300m in military financing and had approved a $165m sale of ammunition, bringing total US security assistance since the invasion to about $3.7bn, a US official said. More than $400m will also be split among 15 other nations in central and eastern Europe and the Balkans.

“It will provide support for capabilities Ukraine needs, especially the fight in the Donbas,” the official said. “This assistance will also help Ukraine’s armed forces transition to more advanced weapons and air defence systems, essentially Nato-capable systems.” Unlike previous assistance, it is not a donation of US military stockpiles, but rather cash that countries can use to purchase what that they might need.

US diplomats will initially resume “day trips” across the border to Lviv in the coming week and officials are accelerating planning to return to the Kyiv mission, 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.

US diplomats departed the Kyiv embassy nearly two weeks before the 24 February invasion, moving some functions to the western city of Lviv before eventually relocating to Poland.

The official also said Joe Biden would on Monday formally nominate Bridget Brink as US ambassador to Ukraine, a post that had remained vacant for more than two years. Brink, a career foreign service officer, has been US ambassador to Slovakia since 2019 and has previously held assignments in Serbia, Cyprus, Georgia and Uzbekistan as well as with the White House national security council. The post requires confirmation by the US Senate.

Zelenskiy had urged the Americans not to come empty-handed when he announced on Saturday that he would meet with the US officials in Kyiv on Sunday.

In other developments:

  • Russian officials have confirmed that oil tanks at a depot in the city of Bryansk, around 110km (70 miles) from the border with Ukraine, have caught fire. It is not clear what caused the fire, videos of which posted on social media showed huge flames and plumes of smoke against the night sky. Nasa satellites that track fires show a burning fire at coordinates that correspond to a Rosneft facility.

  • Russia is planning a “staged referendum” in the southern city of Kherson aimed at justifying its occupation, the UK’s Ministry of Defence has said in its latest intelligence report. “The city is key to Russia’s objective of establishing a land bridge to Crimea and dominating southern Ukraine,” the ministry said.

  • The OSCE, the world’s largest security body, has said it is “extremely concerned” after several of its Ukrainian members were believed to have been arrested in pro-Russian separatist territories in the country’s east.

Russian forces have regrouped to try to capture more territory in the south-eastern Donbas region, letting foreign leaders visit the capital and some western nations resume their diplomatic presence in the west of the country in recent weeks, but Washington has been cautious about a return amid sporadic Russian missile attacks in Lviv and the capital.

Secretary of state Antony Blinken boards a plane for departure, at Joint Base Andrews, in Maryland, U.S., April 23, 2022
Secretary of state Antony Blinken held talks in Kyiv with Volodymyr Zelenskiy amid tight security. Photograph: Reuters

Austin will next travel to Germany, where he will host counterparts from more than 20 nations and Nato secretary general Jens Stoltenberg at the US airbase at Ramstein to discuss Ukraine’s defence needs, a Pentagon official said. Topics for discussion will include battlefield updates, additional security assistance for Ukraine and longer-term defence needs in Europe, including how to step up military production to fill gaps caused by the war in Ukraine, officials 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 to reflect that fighting is now focused in the flatter, more open Donbas region, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said.

Despite Zelenskiy’s announcement of a visit on Saturday, the Biden administration refused to confirm it and declined to discuss details of a possible visit even though planning had been under way for more than a week.

Journalists who travelled with Austin and Blinken to Poland were barred from reporting on the trip until it was over, were not allowed to accompany them on their overland journey into Ukraine, and were prohibited from specifying where in south-east Poland they waited for their return. Officials at the state department and the Pentagon cited security concerns.

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