Europe Politics

Blinken, Austin meet with Zelenskyy in Kyiv, a wartime first for top U.S. officials

Josh Lederman and Abigail Williams
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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in Washington, DC, on April 11, 2022. NBC News reports Blinken and Austin slipped into Ukraine on Sunday for an extraordinary wartime meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, bringing new promises of military and diplomatic support.
Michael Mccoy | Afp | Getty Images

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin slipped into Ukraine on Sunday for an extraordinary wartime meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, bringing new promises of military and diplomatic support and defying grave concerns about whether it was safe to make the journey.

The trip, the highest-level American visit since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, was designed to show steadfast U.S. support for Ukraine and its defense, as the war enters a new, worrying phase expected to be marked by a major Russian offensive in Ukraine's south and east.

Blinken and Austin were scheduled to meet in Kyiv, the Ukrainian capital, for 90 minutes with Zelenskyy, along with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba and Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov, U.S. officials said. It wasn't immediately clear whether the visiting Americans held other meetings on the sidelines during their brief foray into the war-ravaged country.

The visit was shrouded in secrecy, with the U.S. government declining to confirm it was happening until it was over and Blinken and Austin were safely out of the country — even after Zelenskyy announced the day before that they'd be coming. His revelation during a Saturday news conference had caught Washington off-guard, prompting a last-minute scramble to determine whether it was still safe for them to go, U.S. officials said.

It's typical for war zone trips by U.S. presidents and other high-level officials to be unannounced in advance, lest it make it easier for enemy forces operating in the country to target them. Blinken and Austin traveled to Poland with small contingents of journalists under ground rules imposed by the United States requiring them not to report on the trip until it was finished. No U.S. journalists accompanied the secretaries on the journey from Poland to Ukraine.

In his comments ahead of their visit, Zelenskyy had publicly urged the U.S. secretaries not to show up empty-handed — and they didn't.

Blinken came bearing news that the Biden administration will finally nominate an ambassador to Ukraine: Bridget Brink, currently the U.S. ambassador to Slovakia, who for weeks has been widely reported to be President Joe Biden's likely pick. 

The U.S. has not had a Senate-confirmed ambassador to Ukraine since then-President Donald Trump fired Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch in 2019, and the vacancy had become a diplomatic black eye for the U.S. as the Ukraine war erupted into the top global crisis. Brink, who has deep experience in Eastern Europe, will face another Senate vote to be confirmed for the post in Ukraine.

While in Kyiv, Blinken also informed Zelenskyy that U.S. diplomats will return to Ukraine this week — possibly as early as Monday — for the first time since the U.S. evacuated its remaining diplomats in the country to Poland weeks ago, a senior Department of State official said. At first, U.S. diplomats temporarily based in Poland will make day trips over the border to the Ukrainian city of Lviv and then to other parts of the country, the official said. 

Ultimately, the U.S. intends to return at least some diplomats to the Ukrainian capital following a move by the United Kingdom last week to reopen its embassy there. The decision signals newfound U.S. confidence that Kyiv is now at least moderately safe after Russia withdrew its troops from the city earlier this month, following its failed attempt to capture it.

"We're accelerating planning to return to the embassy as soon as that is feasible," the senior official said.

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Blinken also told the Ukrainians the U.S. will provide another $713 million in military financing for Ukraine and other regional partners, the official said, including assistance for Ukraine to transition from old, Soviet-era weapons to more modern systems used by NATO members.

Zelenskyy also heard from Austin, who told him that some of the howitzer artillery systems the Biden administration recently announced it would provide have now arrived, as Ukraine prepares for a potentially massive land battle in the east. A senior defense official said seven more howitzer packages are being readied to be sent to Ukraine imminently, along with armored vehicles to tow them.

Getting U.S. weapons systems like heavy artillery into Ukraine has been a major logistical challenge, with Washington keenly attuned to the risk that Russia could target weapons supply lines into the country. 

Austin also confirmed during the visit that as of Monday, the first tranche of Ukrainian troops being trained to use the artillery will have completed their training in a third country. The U.S. and Ukraine are declining to identify where the training is occurring at that country's request, the senior defense official said.

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Yet, despite the war zone visit and stepped-up U.S. military assistance, Biden's insistence that U.S. troops won't be sent to fight in Ukraine or impose a no-fly zone has not softened, officials traveling with Austin said.

"This visit does not portend actual involvement by U.S. forces," the senior defense official said.

Zelenskyy's unusual public disclosure Saturday that Austin and Blinken planned to visit had prompted speculation that the trip might have to be called off — and difficult questions about whether the Ukrainian leader had breached the Americans' trust and potentially jeopardized their safety. 

But officials traveling with the secretaries downplayed any U.S. consternation about the giveaway, with a defense official saying the U.S. had planned for the possibility that word of the trip could leak in advance.

"You know, it's his country," the senior State Department official said Sunday of Zelenskyy. "It didn't change anything about our commitment to go there today and to share what we have to say."

As Austin and Blinken were making their way back out of Ukraine, Zelenskyy thanked the Biden administration and the American people on Twitter for their support, calling the U.S.-Ukraine relationship "stronger than ever."

In recent days, Zelenskyy has said he both expects and hopes that Biden will personally visit, although he acknowledged that might not be possible until the security situation improves. Biden, who traveled to Ukraine multiple times as senator and vice president, has told reporters he wants to go back as soon as possible.