US to resume diplomatic operations in Ukraine

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IN POLAND, NEAR THE BORDER WITH UKRAINE – The United States will resume diplomatic operations in Ukraine this week for the first time since Russia’s invasion began in February, US officials said.

Diplomats will return to the western city of Lviv, where Ukrainians and foreigners have sought shelter from the violence raging elsewhere in the country, a first step to reopening the US Embassy in Ukraine’s capital, the officials said.

“This will underscore our commitment and it will make it clear that we’ll seek to have our diplomats return to our embassy in Kyiv as soon as possible,” a senior State Department official, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity under Biden administration rules, told reporters.

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The announcement comes after Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin made a brief stop in Kyiv, the first high-level US visit since the start of the war on Feb 24. The visit occurred after a number of European leaders traveled to Kyiv to hold talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky, who is seeking greater outside support for his country’s military effort.

Blinken and Austin flew to Poland ahead of what was planned as a Kyiv visit that would not be disclosed until they left Ukraine. Zelensky, however, on Saturday announced the two American officials would be traveling to Kyiv.

While other nations, including Britain, have announced a resumption of embassy operations in Kyiv, the United States has not yet taken that step.

Officials outlined additional steps that Blinken and Austin relayed to Ukrainian officials during their brief stay in the capital, where they also met with Ukraine’s foreign and interior ministers. They asked reporters to withhold the name of the location in Poland that Blinken and Austin used as the jumping-off point for their visit because of security reasons.

Also this week, the Biden administration will announce the nomination of a new ambassador to Ukraine. Bridget Brink, a career diplomat, now serves as ambassador to Slovakia. There has been no confirmed US ambassador to Ukraine since Marie Yovanovitch was ousted in 2019.

Blinken and Austin also told Zelensky the Biden administration will provide $ 713 million in military financing for Ukraine and more than a dozen other nations. The funding will allow those countries to purchase new weapons to boost their stocks or, in some cases, replenish arms provided to Ukraine. Ukraine will get more than $ 300 million, the State Department official said, allowing it to buy more sophisticated air defense systems and stockpile arms compatible with those used by NATO nations instead of the Soviet-designed weapons.

The aid “will provide support for capabilities Ukraine needs, especially for the fight in the Donbas,” the official said, referring to the region of eastern Ukraine that borders Russia and where Moscow is concentrating its forces. The Biden administration will also sell Ukraine up to $ 165 million in “nonstandard ammunition” it can use for its existing weapons systems.

A senior US defense official said Austin would update Zelensky on the promised deliveries of howitzers and the ongoing training of Ukrainian troops on US artillery systems, part of a previously announced set of US allocations. Officials declined to identify where the training is being conducted.

After his Kyiv visit, Austin will travel to Germany for a meeting on Tuesday with defense officials from a number of countries, including Ukraine.

Asked about Zelensky’s decision to announce the US visit ahead of time, when officials had gone to great lengths to keep the planning secret, the State Department official said: “It’s his country. … We planned for any number of contingencies. ”

Officials said reestablishing the diplomatic presence within Ukraine will allow embassy staff to coordinate more closely with Ukrainian officials and, eventually, provide more consular services.

“This is the first step and we expect to be able to accelerate that in the coming days and weeks,” the State Department official said.

In February, as US officials warned that Russia’s military buildup around Ukraine could signal an imminent invasion, the United States relocated diplomats from its embassy in Kyiv to Lviv. It halted those operations later that month.

Why is Ukraine’s Donbas region a target for Russian forces?

The defense official said the Pentagon still views Ukraine’s port city of Mariupol as contested despite Russian statements about having completed a prolonged campaign to seize the city, which is on the Sea of ​​Azov.

“For all the Russian claims that they’ve got, it is certainly not acting like an army that thinks they’ve got it because they continue to hit Mariupol,” he said.

He said Moscow had assigned about a dozen Russian tactical groups to the key southern port. Mariupol, a major Russian objective, could help Russia secure a land bridge to Crimea, which Moscow annexed in 2014, and could also be used as a jumping-off point for attempts to push north into other parts of Ukraine.

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The official said fighting in the greater Donbas region, which includes Mariupol and areas held by Russian-backed separatists, remained inconclusive.

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