Not even a month ago, Russian troops were just outside the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv. A few weeks earlier, American diplomats had fled the country for Poland, an unmistakable sign of how hopeless they thought the situation was. But then the Ukrainian defenders managed to repel at least the first attack on their capital. At the end of March the Russians withdrew.
Now, for the first time since the beginning of the war in Ukraine, two representatives of the US government have visited the country. For security reasons, the flying visit was kept top secret. It was only on Saturday that President Volodymyr Zelensky announced his guests for the next day: Foreign Minister Antony Blinken and Defense Minister Lloyd Austin. Because of the unsafe airspace, the two did not travel as usual with an American government jet, but flew to Poland and boarded the train to Kyiv. Journalists’ requests to accompany her were consistently turned down. The security risk is too great. Her visit was also kept secret in Kyiv itself. Few know exactly when and where they met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy.
At least there are a few photos of the meeting. They show the US and Ukrainian delegations in a windowless conference room. In one of the pictures, Zelensky stands in front of two Ukrainian and American flags. He is framed by Blinken and Austin, the Americans in suits, no ties, Zelensky in an olive green shirt. The meeting was scheduled for 90 minutes but ended up lasting more than three hours.
The ministers discussed how the USA and its allies could better support Ukraine. Blinken promised more funds for humanitarian aid, as he later said at a media conference in Poland. Austin announced more than $800 million in arms shipments. Some of them go to Ukraine, some to other countries as a substitute for war material that they have already sent to Kyiv. Austin plans to meet a number of other defense ministers at the US military base in Ramstein on Tuesday to coordinate weapons supplies for Ukraine.
More symbolically, however, Blinken announced the return of American diplomats to Ukraine. In the next few days they will first translate from Poland to Lviv in western Ukraine, and later to the embassy in Kyiv. US President Biden has also nominated a new ambassador to Ukraine. His candidate Bridget Brink knows Eastern Europe very well: she is currently representing the USA in Slovakia.
The rapid return of the Americans, temporarily those of the ministers, permanently those of the diplomats, marks a turning point in the war in Ukraine – and in US strategy. The White House is sending a mixed signal, one of determination. Now that Russia has shifted combat operations to the east of the country, it can be assumed that the conflict could last for a long time. With the swift posting of its diplomats, the White House is renewing its pledge to continue to stand by Ukrainians. Austin made it very clear that the Biden government sees itself in a new Cold War: “We want to weaken Russia to such an extent that it is no longer capable of things like invading Ukraine. It already has a lot of military clout and numerous troops lost. They must not be able to regain that clout quickly.”
But the United States is also showing hope: Kyiv is safe enough for American ministers to visit. In the Ukrainian capital, life seems to be returning to normal, the streets are full of people, Foreign Minister Blinken summed up.
However, how far Kyiv still is from normality was impressively demonstrated by the security precautions surrounding the visit of the two ministers. Even if there are no more Russian troops near the capital, rockets keep falling. Attacks are also feared. As a result, Ukrainian President Zelensky has become both the face of the Ukrainian resistance and a specter. Although he regularly shows himself in videos, only a few people know where he is actually staying. Zelenskiy’s first analogue press conference since the beginning of the war took place last Saturday in the sheltered depths of a metro station.
“According to our information, the enemy has made me target number one, my family target number two,” Zelensky said shortly after the war began. That’s why he can’t see his wife and children at the moment. Apparently there have been several attempts to kill him since then. The British Times already reported weeks ago about three failed attacks. Several groups are said to have been commissioned by the Russian leadership to assassinate the Ukrainian president. These included mercenaries from the Kremlin-backed Wagner Group and Chechen special forces.
So Zelensky’s staff has to constantly weigh openness and concealment against each other. If not face-to-face, interviews with the President are conducted in writing on ever-changing channels such as Whatsapp. They are asked not to call – they are too concerned that the Russian military could pinpoint their location. Last Sunday, the Orthodox Easter, a video of the President was released in one of the capital’s major cathedrals. When and where it was recorded remained unclear. For his appearance in front of the EU Parliament, he sat in front of a white wall, the transmission was shaky. In a video that Zelenskij recorded in early March, he made at least a small pan out of his office window. You could see the center of Kiev. “I’m not hiding and I’m not afraid of anyone. I’ll stay as long as it takes to win this war,” Zelensky said.