Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an unscheduled visit to Kyiv on Thursday as the U.S. announced major new military aid worth more than $2 billion US for Ukraine and other European countries who feel threatened by Russia.
In meetings with senior Ukrainian officials, Blinken said Joe Biden’s administration would provide $2 billion in long-term foreign military financing to Ukraine and 18 of its neighbours, including NATO members and regional security partners “most potentially at risk for future Russian aggression.”
Pending expected U.S. congressional approval, about $1 billion of that will go to Ukraine and the rest will be divided among Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Georgia, Greece, Kosovo, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Poland, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia, the State Department said.
“This assistance demonstrates yet again our unwavering commitment to Ukraine’s future as a democratic, sovereign and independent state, as well as the security of allies and partners across the region,” the department said.
Front Burner24:58Inside Ukraine — a country living with war
The amount is separate from a $675-million package of heavy weaponry, ammunition and armoured vehicles for Ukraine alone that Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin announced earlier Thursday at a conference in Ramstein, Germany. That package includes howitzers, artillery munitions, Humvees, armoured ambulances, anti-tank systems and more.
The contributions bring total U.S. aid to Ukraine to $15.2 billion since President Joe Biden took office.
.<a href=”https://twitter.com/SecDef?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw”>@SecDef</a>: We established this Contact Group as the free world was racing to meet Ukraine’s most urgent requirements. But today, this Contact Group needs to position itself to sustain Ukraine’s brave defenders for the long haul. <a href=”https://t.co/RN2OdaGrmR”>pic.twitter.com/RN2OdaGrmR</a>
Austin said that “the war is at another key moment,” with Ukrainian forces beginning their counteroffensive in the south of the country. He said “now we’re seeing the demonstrable success of our common efforts on the battlefield.”
“The face of the war is changing and so is the mission of this contact group,” Austin told the meeting of the Ukraine Defence Contact Group, which was attended by NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg and Ukraine’s defence minister as well as officials from allied countries.
Ukraine gains, evacuations reported in Kharkiv
The announcements came as fighting between Ukraine and Russia has intensified in recent days, with Ukrainian forces mounting a counter-offensive to retake Russian-held areas in the south and east.
According to a report released Wednesday by the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for the Study of War, Ukrainian forces in Kharkiv are “likely exploiting Russian force reallocation” to areas near the occupied city of Kherson in the south “to conduct an opportunistic yet highly effective counteroffensive” in the province.
Ukrainian forces likely used “tactical surprise” to advance at least 20 kilometres into Russian-held territory in the Kharkiv region on Wednesday, recapturing approximately 400 square kilometres of ground, the report said.
Vitaly Ganchev, the Moscow-backed mayor of the town of Kupiansk in a Russian-occupied area of the Kharkiv region, said Thursday that authorities had begun evacuating women and children from the town and nearby areas because of relentless Ukrainian shelling.
In his nightly video address on Wednesday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy also reported success in the Kharkiv region but didn’t provide details on its scope.
“This week we have good news from the Kharkiv region. You have probably already seen reports about the activity of Ukrainian defenders, and I think every citizen feels proud of our warriors,” Zelenskyy said.
Nuclear plant concerns remain heightened
Meanwhile, tensions continued to simmer around Europe’s largest nuclear power plant, where Ukraine and Russia have accused each other of threatening a nuclear disaster by shelling near the facility.
The towns of Nikopol and Marhanets, which face the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant across the Dnieper River, had come under Russian shelling overnight that left apartment buildings, a school, some industrial facilities and power lines damaged, said Valentyn Reznichenko, the governor of the Dnipropetrovsk province.
“The nuclear threat isn’t abating because of Russia’s mad actions and we need to consider all possible scenarios, including the worst one,” Reznichenko said in televised remarks.
The head of the UN International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi, has warned that “something very, very catastrophic could take place” at the Zaporizhzhia plant and urged Russia and Ukraine to establish a “nuclear safety and security protection zone” around it.
The fear is that the fighting could trigger a disaster on the scale of the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine in 1986.
Ukraine admits to rocket strikes in Crimea
Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk urged residents of Russian-occupied areas near the power plant to evacuate, adding that Ukrainian authorities have urged the Russians to set up humanitarian corridors to evacuate local residents, but got no response.
Ukraine’s Enerhoatom company, which oversees the country’s nuclear plants, said that the Zaporizhzhia plant’s workers were continuing repair works on Thursday to restore at least one of seven power lines to the plant, which has continued to operate with only one of six reactors operating to power the cooling system’s pumps.
Enerhoatom chief Petro Kotin said that the IAEA’s proposals to improve safety at the plant can only be implemented if Russian troops leave and are replaced by a peacekeeping contingent.
Meanwhile, the chief of the Ukrainian military, Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyy, acknowledged in an article published Wednesday that explosions and fires at airbases in the Russian-annexed Crimean Peninsula last month were caused by a “successful series of rocket strikes on Crimean air bases.”
It marked the first official acknowledgement of responsibility for the attacks by Ukrainian authorities. Zaluzhnyy gave no details of the attacks.