Top U.S. officials to visit Kyiv amid call for heavy arms, Ukraine says
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin were set to visit Kyiv on Sunday to discuss Ukraine’s call for more powerful weapons, two months after Russia’s invasion began, Reuters reported.
The trip, announced by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Saturday, would be the highest-level by U.S. officials since Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine on Feb. 24.
The White House has not confirmed any visit by Blinken and Austin. The State Department and Pentagon declined to comment.
As Christians in Ukraine marked Orthodox Easter on Sunday, there was no end in sight to a war that has killed thousands of people, uprooted millions more and reduced cities to rubble.
“I pray that this horror in Ukraine ends soon and we can return home,” said Nataliya Krasnopolskaia, who was spending Easter in Prague, one of the more than 5 million Ukrainians estimated to have fled the country.
Serhiy Gaidai, governor of the eastern Luhansk region, said Easter celebrations had been shattered by the conflict. He said with seven churches in his region had been “mutilated by Russian artillery” in the conflict. Reuters could not independently verify his report.
Zelenskiy said in an Easter video message from Kyiv’s 1,000-year-old Saint Sophia Cathedral that Ukraine would not be defeated by “wickedness” and prayed for “endurance to those who, unfortunately, would not see the return of their child from the front”.
He had earlier said talks with his U.S. visitors would cover the “powerful, heavy weapons” Ukraine needed to retake territory and the pace of deliveries. He did not specify what equipment he would ask for.
The United States and NATO allies have shown growing readiness to supply heavier equipment and more advanced weapons systems. Britain has promised to send military vehicles and said it was considering supplying British tanks to Poland to free up Warsaw’s Russian-designed T-72s for Ukraine.
Moscow, which describes its actions in Ukraine as a “special military operation”, denies targeting civilians and rejects what Ukraine says is evidence of atrocities, saying Kyiv staged them to undermine peace talks.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said after talks by phone with Zelenskiy that Ankara was ready to assist in negotiations with Russia, after earlier rounds of talks showed no sign of helping end the conflict. He also called for evacuating civilians from the devastated southern city of Mariupol.
Ukraine said Russia was continuing to bombard the Azovstal steel works in Mariupol where Ukrainian defenders were holding out, although Moscow previously declared victory in the city and said did not need to take the plant.
“The place where our civilians and military are located is shelled with heavy air bombs and artillery,” senior Ukrainian presidential advisor Mykhailo Podolyak said on Twitter, calling for “a real Easter truce in Mariupol”.
Capturing Mariupol, the site of biggest battle of the conflict, would link up pro-Russian separatists who control parts of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk that make up the Donbas with the southern Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which Moscow seized in 2014.
Ukraine estimates tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in Mariupol and says 100,000 civilians are still in the city. The United Nations and Red Cross say the civilian toll is at least in the thousands.
Oleksiy Arestovych, an adviser to Zelenskiy, said troops in the giant Azovstal steel complex were attempting counterattacks. More than 1,000 civilians are also in the plant, Ukraine says.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide, called for humanitarian corridors in Mariupol and other areas of Ukraine, where he said “an indescribable human tragedy is unfolding”.