Ukraine claims battlefield breakthrough as Blinken steps up aid
Ukraine on Thursday claimed a military breakthrough in its counteroffensive against Russian invaders as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, on a surprise visit to Kyiv, unveiled an additional $2.8 billion in military aid.
Ukraine said its forces had made gains in the north, south and east, retaking land seized by Russia who had hoped for a quick victory when they attacked nearly seven months ago.
“Our heroes have already liberated dozens of settlements. And today this movement has continued,” Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky said in an address to the nation.
“In total, more than a thousand square kilometers (almost 400 square miles) have been liberated since September 1,” he said shortly after announcing the recapture of Balakliya in the eastern region of Kharkiv, a city that fell to the hands of Russian forces in early March. .
In the area around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, forces have penetrated 50 kilometers (30 miles) beyond Russian lines and “liberated” more than 20 towns and villages, a senior military official said, Oleksiy Gromov.
Hoping to build on this momentum, Blinken secretly traveled to Kyiv on his second trip during the war, walking through dark hallways with sandbags in the sealed presidential compound to meet President Volodymyr Zelensky.
“It’s very early days, but we’re seeing clear, real progress on the ground,” Blinken said after spending more than two hours with Zelensky.
Blinken vowed that the United States would continue aid “until the aggression ceases and Ukraine is fully sovereign” and pressure on Russia would continue to become “heavier and heavier”.
“You have our word — and our track record,” he told Zelensky.
Zelensky, wearing his now-iconic military green t-shirt, presented Blinken with a state award as he expressed his gratitude for the “huge support” from the United States.
The aid “is a guarantee that we can return our territories,” Zelensky said.
The latest package includes $675 million to be shipped soon in weapons, ammunition and supplies and another $1 billion in longer-term loans and grants for Ukraine to buy more American equipment.
The State Department has also approved $1.2 billion for 18 other nations considered at risk by Russia including the Baltic states, Moldova and Georgia which both have Moscow-backed breakaway regions.
A day after the United Nations said there were “credible reports” of Russia forcing Ukrainian children into her territory, Blinken began her journey by visiting war-injured toddlers in a hospital.
In a room with toy trucks and alien action figures, he arrived with a basket of stuffed animals, announcing, “Brought some friends.”
“The spirit of your children sends a very strong message around the world,” he said.
Blinken then visited Irpin on the outskirts of the capital where the deputy mayor described indiscriminate attacks during 25-day occupation by Russia at the start of the war and said there were 30,000 open cases related to war crimes.
“There must be accountability to those who committed atrocities,” Blinken said.
In a coordinated show of resolve, President Joe Biden spoke by phone with Allied leaders about Ukraine and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin met with his counterparts at Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
“Now we see demonstrable success in our joint efforts on the battlefield,” Austin said.
Amid reports of gains from Ukraine, Russia also announced battlefield successes, saying it hit five command posts and shot down 13 drones on Thursday.
Addressing a forum in Moscow, Prime Minister Mikhail Mishustin said Russia weathered Western sanctions better during the war, estimating that GDP fell just over 1% year-on-year in the first six months of 2022.
The Central Bank of Russia expects a contraction of four to six percent for the year, while Blinken cited an estimate of an even steeper decline.
“Unprecedented sanctions were imposed on our country. But their initiators failed in their main objective. They failed to undermine our financial stability,” Mishustin said.
Allies pledge their support
But as the war continues, both sides increasingly face a shortage of military supplies, with US officials saying Russia bought drones from Iran and large quantities of rockets and artillery shells from North Korea.
Speaking at Ramstein, US General Mark Milley said there was “significant ammunition consumption” by Ukraine that will need to be addressed by allies.
Norway offered 160 Hellfire missiles and night vision equipment, Germany offered winter supplies, and the Netherlands joined Germany with mine clearance training.
The latest package from the United States – Ukraine’s largest supplier – includes 105mm howitzers, precision-guided GMLRS rockets and artillery ammunition.
It brings US military aid to Ukraine since the invasion to $15.2 billion.
Among the most effective weapons sent by Washington are the HIMAR multiple launch rocket systems, which are paired with GMLRS rockets that can hit targets up to 80 kilometers (50 miles) away.
But Kyiv is looking for ATACMS – medium-range, precision-guided tactical missiles capable of striking 300 kilometers away.
The United States has so far refused because it fears the missiles will land on Russian territory, sparking an even bigger conflict.
“The range of HIMARS is sufficient to meet the needs of the Ukrainians as they fight now,” Milley said.