Blinken, Austin make stealth visit to Kyiv as Ukraine war enters third month

Blinken, Austin make stealth visit to Kyiv as Ukraine war enters third month

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made a stealth visit to Kyiv on Sunday night, meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as Russia’s messy invasion rumbled into its third month, ignoring calls for a ceasefire in observance of Orthodox Easter.

The arrival of Mr. Blinken and Mr. Austin marked the highest-level trip to the Ukrainian capital by a U.S. delegation since the Russian invasion began. While the Biden administration had refused to comment on the visit amid tight security, an adviser to Mr. Zelenskyy told Ukrainian TV the meeting was underway in Kyiv late Sunday night.

The visit came at the end of a weekend in which Mr. Zelenskyy and other Ukrainian officials accused Russian forces of continued targeting of civilians while Moscow claimed the Russian military had carried out successful strikes Sunday against a Ukrainian explosives factory, several artillery depots and hundreds of other targets.

While Ukraine’s military successfully staved off a Russian assault on Kyiv weeks ago, Mr. Zelenskyy said over the weekend he intended to press Mr. Blinken and Mr. Austin for more powerful weapons than Washington and NATO have so far provided — even after President Biden’s announcement last week of a fresh $800 million worth of aid in the form of U.S. military equipment.

“You can’t come to us empty-handed today, and we are expecting not just presents or some kind of cakes, we are expecting specific things and specific weapons,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in reference to Kyiv’s repeated requests since the invasion began for such heavy weapons as long-range air defense systems and warplanes.

Ukrainians solemnly observed Orthodox Easter on Sunday, while Maj. Gen. Igor Konashenkov, a Russian Defense Ministry spokesman, said Russian forces had used precision-guided missiles to destroy a factory making powder and explosives near Pavlohrad in central Ukraine in overnight strikes heading into the holiday.

SEE ALSO: Russian forces trying to forcibly deport civilians from Mariupol to Russia, Ukrainian lawmaker says

The general also claimed Russian forces had struck several depots with artillery munitions and rockets in Barvinkove, Nova Dmytrivka, Ivanivka, Husarivka and Velyka Komyshuvakha in the Kharkiv region.

The biggest strategic developments Sunday came in Ukraine’s east, where Russian forces were reported to have launched fresh airstrikes on a steel plant in the besieged port city of Mariupol, where an estimated 1,000 civilians are holed up alongside some 2,000 Ukrainian fighters.

Mr. Zelenskyy made headlines last week by claiming some 120,000 other civilians remained trapped in Mariupol.

The city has become a main target of Russia’s revised war plan aimed at controlling territory between the Russian border to the north and the Crimean Peninsula that Moscow seized from Ukraine in 2014.

Mariupol is situated in the midst of that territory along the Sea of Azov, and Russian forces have for weeks blocked the establishment of a sustainable humanitarian aid corridor into the city, while also preventing civilians from evacuating to the western parts of Ukraine.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal accused Russian forces Sunday of committing “terrible war crimes” in Mariupol, telling the CBS program “Face the Nation” that “small children and babies” have died of dehydration in the city since the war began in late February.

Those comments came after Mr. Zelenskyy had accused Russians of committing war crimes by killing civilians, as well as of setting up “filtration camps” near Mariupol for people caught trying to leave the city.

Mr. Zelenskyy said Ukrainians were being sent from the camps to areas under Russian occupation or to Russia itself, often as far as Siberia or the Far East. Many of them, he said, are children.

The claims could not be independently verified. But they were repeated Sunday by Ukrainian Parliament member Yevheniia Kravchuk, who told ABC’s “This Week” program that Russian forces are attempting to forcibly deport tens of thousands of civilians.

“They have pulled these people from Mariupol … [This] can’t be happening in the 21st century,” said Ms. Kravchuck, who added that Ukrainian officials “hope that maybe with help of other Western leaders … we will be able to take out the kids and women who are still in the basements … in Mariupol.”

Mr. Zelenskyy, meanwhile, also claimed over the weekend that intercepted communications recorded Russian troops discussing “how they conceal the traces of their crimes” in Mariupol.

The Ukrainian president highlighted the death of a 3-month old girl in a Russian missile strike Saturday on the Black Sea port of Odesa.

Ukraine’s national police separately said Sunday that two girls, aged 5 and 14, had died in shelling in the town of Ocheretyne.

Moscow has repeatedly denied accusations by Ukrainian officials and U.S. officials that Russian forces are targeting civilians and carrying out war crimes.

International investigators have been probing whether Russian forces retreating from areas near Kyiv in early April carried out atrocities against civilians.

Images of mass graves with bodies scattered around Bucha, a northwestern suburb of the Ukrainian capital, swirled through the global media space showing bodies in civilian clothes with bound hands and legs, close-range gunshot wounds and evidence of torture.

Mr. Zelenskyy, meanwhile, said over the weekend that he was seeking Turkey’s help as a mediator in trying to diffuse the crisis in Mariupol and to try to facilitate peace talks between Kyiv and Moscow.

The Ukrainian president wrote Sunday on Twitter that he had asked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan to raise the issue of civilian evacuations from Mariupol during a call Mr. Erdogan was slated to hold with Russian President Vladimir Putin later in the day.

Mr. Zelenskyy said he and Mr. Erdogan also discussed the course of the negotiation process and possible security guarantees for Ukraine from Turkey and other nations.

Mr. Erdogan’s office said the Turkish president told Mr. Zelenskyy that Turkey is ready to mediate and assist in talks between Ukraine and Russia.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is scheduled to travel to Turkey on Monday and then Moscow and Kyiv. Mr. Zelenskyy has said it will be a mistake for Mr. Guterres to visit Russia before Ukraine.

“Why? To hand over signals from Russia? What should we look for?” the Ukrainian president said Saturday. “There are no corpses scattered on the Kutuzovsky Prospect,” he said, referring to one of Moscow’s main avenues. 

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.