Blinken and Austin to visit war-battered Ukraine, Zelenskyy says

Photo for The Washington Post by Wojciech Grzedzinski
A destroyed stadium in Chernihiv, Ukraine, on Saturday

MUKACHEVO, Ukraine — U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit Ukraine on Sunday, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said, in what would be the first high-level visit by Biden administration officials since the start of the Russian invasion.

Such a trip would underscore the administration’s emboldened approach to Ukraine in recent weeks, as President Joe Biden has committed additional billions of dollars in weapons and equipment to Ukraine’s military. The Pentagon has also announced training exercises for select groups of Ukrainian officers on U.S.-made weapons systems.

It also highlights the continued disconnect, with Ukraine continuing to step up demands for more military and financial aid and the West’s pledges. “They should not come here with empty hands,” Zelenskyy warned, speaking from an underground subway station in Kyiv. “We are expecting specific things and specific weapons.”

“Come to us, we’ll be happy to see you. But please bring us the assistance, which we have discussed,” the Ukrainian president added. “That’s why the visit from the U.S. is very important.”

Heavy bombardment continued in several Ukrainian cities in the east of the country over the weekend as fighting appears poised to rage straight through the country’s observance of Orthodox Easter on Sunday despite international appeals for a cease-fire over the holiday.

On Saturday, Russian missile struck Odessa, a strategic southwestern port city that has seen fewer attacks during the war. At least eight people were killed, including a 3-month-old infant, Ukrainian officials said.

The attacks hit two residential buildings and a military facility, Ukraine’s air force said, rocking a city where life had largely returned to normal after Russia narrowed its military campaign in recent weeks to focus on the eastern regions, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting Ukraine for several years.

Andriy Yermak, the chief of staff for Zelenskyy, wrote in a post on the Telegram messaging app that the number of casualties from Saturday’s barrage on Odessa is likely to rise. Zelenskyy later told reporters that Russian forces were “dirty scumbags” for carrying it out.

“The child was one month old when the war started,” he said. “What is even happening here?”

Two people were rescued from the rubble, and 86 were evacuated from a 16-story apartment building that was hit, Ukraine’s national emergency services office said. A video of the aftermath shared on social media and verified by The Washington Post showed large black plumes of smoke billowing from a tall building near a grassy area.

The Russian defense ministry asserted that its missile strikes had destroyed a logistics terminal in the city where foreign weapons were being stored. The Post could not independently verify that claim.

The strikes were an ominous reminder of a recent warning from a top Russian commander that forces intend to take “full control” of all of the southern port cities of Ukraine so that Russia could have a path to Ukraine’s western landlocked neighbor of Moldova, which has its own breakaway region, Transnistria, aligned with Russia. His comments were condemned by Moldova, where residents have worried since the beginning of the war they could be next in the Kremlin’s crosshairs.

The United States has allocated roughly $3.4 billion in military assistance to Ukraine since the war began in February and has intensified its shipments of weapons and equipment into the country over the past two weeks.

The donations include thousands of missiles that can be used against Russian military aircraft and artillery, long-range artillery cannons, helicopters, armored vehicles, radar defense systems, drones and anti-personnel mines, among other equipment.

The latest $800 million assistance package, announced Thursday, includes two drone systems.

But the Pentagon has remained tight-lipped about the timing and locations of its deliveries and has said that the Ukrainians control the destination of the weapons once they cross into the country.

More than two dozen nations have joined the effort to funnel military support to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in February.

Numerous foreign dignitaries, including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, have visited Kyiv in recent months to show their support for Zelenskyy’s government. He announced Saturday that Britain would reopen its embassy in Kyiv, which diplomats had evacuated at the start of the invasion.

Biden last month traveled to Poland and visited with Ukrainian refugees and U.S. service members stationed there.

Austin will also be hosting a summit in Germany in the coming days to build support for Ukraine’s defense and security needs, the Pentagon’s top spokesman, John Kirby, said Thursday.

The “Ukraine Defense Consultative Group,” which will meet at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on Tuesday, will focus not just on Ukraine’s short-term military assistance needs and the latest battlefield assessments, but also take “a longer, larger view of Ukraine’s defense needs, going forward beyond the war that they’re facing right now,” Kirby said.

More than 20 countries have agreed to participate that meeting, Kirby said Friday.

But as nations including the United States dispatch heavy weaponry, some cracks are emerging in the coalition of allies. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz cautioned that it was a “top priority” for NATO to “avoid a direct military confrontation between NATO and a highly armed superpower like Russia, a nuclear power.”

In an interview with Der Spiegel published Friday, Scholz said it was not “justifiable for Germany and NATO to become parties to the war in Ukraine.”

Scholz made the comments in response to several questions about the prospect of his country’s delivering heavy weapons to help Ukraine fight Russian attacks. He noted that Germany had already provided 2 billion euros ($2.16 billion) and delivered “defensive weapons,” antitank mines and antiaircraft equipment to Kyiv.

Horrors continue to emerge each day, especially from the bombed-out port city of Mariupol. Civilians evacuated from the city in recent days spoke of bodies in the streets and shelling so relentless that venturing above ground to find water was easily a death sentence.

Russian President Vladimir Putin last week declared Russia’s victory in the battle for Mariupol, even as Ukraine said a contingent of about 1,000 Ukrainian fighters and civilians remain holed up in the steel plant. Putin said in a rare televised address that he had ordered his troops not to storm the steel plant but to blockade it “so that even a fly could not get through.”

Mariupol Mayor Vadym Boychenko on Saturday said that Russian forces had again “thwarted” a coordinated attempt to evacuate civilians from the city.

Boychenko’s office wrote on Telegram that more than 200 people had planned to board buses outside a city shopping center, to evacuate to the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia.

That plan collapsed, Boychenko alleged, after Russian forces told some of those assembled that “there will be shelling,” and that the buses would only travel as far as Dokuchaevsk, a city currently under Russian control.

The Post was unable to independently verify this claim, or another from Ukraine’s human rights ombudsman who said last week that Russia had taken more than 300 Mariupol civilians, including 90 children, to Russia.

Evacuation plans and other efforts to establish humanitarian corridors in and out of Mariupol have routinely failed, amid relentless shelling and the Russian encirclement of the city, that has left residents largely cut off as food, water and medical supplies have dwindled.

A video released Saturday by Ukrainian forces at their last stronghold at the Azovstal Iron and Steel Works plant in Mariupol appears to show a large number of civilians living in cramped conditions in an underground bunker, including women and children.

The video, if confirmed, would be the most extensive footage to date of life in the plant, where an unspecified number of Ukrainian civilians and fighters are said to be holding out against a much larger and better-equipped Russian forces. The video could not be independently verified.

“We want to go home. We want to see the sun,” said one child in the video, standing in a cramped underground shelter with other women and children, where belongings were suspended on lines above makeshift beds.

A woman in the video said her family had been hiding there since March 2. “My husband works here. So we came here with the whole family,” she said. “Grandmother and grandfather stayed at home.”

Other cities in Ukraine also came under heavy fire. Three people were killed and more than 20 people were wounded in the city of Kharkiv and the region as a result of more than 50 strikes from Russian forces on Saturday, a Ukrainian military governor said Saturday. Oleh Syniehubov, head of the Kharkiv regional military administration, claimed that Russian forces “continue to fire on the civilian infrastructure of Kharkiv and the region.”

The United Nations’ high commissioner for human rights Michelle Bachelet last week described Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine as a “horror story of violations perpetrated against civilians,” as the international human rights monitor has documented growing evidence of war crimes, including the indiscriminate shelling of civilian areas and summary executions.

As Russia has withdrawn from northern cities near Kyiv, where earlier bombardments were heavy, the U.N. said satellite imagery has confirmed the massive destruction of civilian infrastructure there. Nearly 80 percent of the village of Horenka appeared to have been destroyed, Bachelet said.

U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres is slated to meet separately with both Putin and Zelenskyy this week in the latest diplomatic effort to mediate an end to the fighting.

Amid the continuing siege, Zelenskyy said Ukraine had appealed to Pope Francis to try to help civilians stranded in Mariupol.

During the Saturday news conference, Zelenskyy proposed that the pope help with negotiations to try “to unblock the humanitarian corridors” into and out of the city, echoing a proposal for the pope to visit the war-torn country.

“It is too early to tell, but we are waiting for him,” Zelenskyy told reporters. “We are waiting because he has a mission — a mission from God. He is trusted by a large number of people; I think this is important.”