By Kylie Atwood and Jennifer Hansler, CNN
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin insisted Monday that Russia was failing in its Ukraine incursion, with Austin explicitly saying that the US wants to see Russia’s military capabilities weakened.
The two top US officials, speaking at a news conference at an undisclosed location in Poland near the Ukrainian border, made the comments following a trip to Kyiv, where they met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to pledge US support in the war and announce that US diplomats would be returning to Ukraine.
“We want to see Russia weakened to the degree that it can’t do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” Austin said at the news conference. “So it has already lost a lot of military capability. And a lot of its troops, quite frankly. And we want to see them not have the capability to very quickly reproduce that capability.”
Blinken told reporters that Russian attempts to “subjugate Ukraine and take its independence” has “failed.”
“Russia has sought as its principal aim to totally subjugate Ukraine, to take away its sovereignty, to take away its independence — that has failed. It has sought to assert the power of its military and its economy. We, of course, are seeing just the opposite, a military that is dramatically underperforming and an economy … as a result of sanctions that is in shambles,” Blinken said.
“We don’t know how the rest of this war will unfold, but we do know that a sovereign independent Ukraine will be around a lot longer than Vladimir Putin is on the scene,” he said.
The remarks are the latest in a series of public comments by US leaders challenging Putin’s longevity as Russia’s President and as the war in Ukraine has shifted to a new phrase in the east. US President Joe Biden and the White House have said the US is not officially calling for regime change and officials have also predicted a potentially drawn-out conflict.
Austin’s comments also seem to represent a further extension of US goals, building on past comments from Blinken and other officials about Moscow’s status at the end of the war.
Blinken last week said in a statement that the US’ “continued efforts to ratchet up pressure on Putin’s crumbling economy together will help weaken the Russian Government’s position and further isolate them from the world until Russia ends its unprovoked and unjustified war on Ukraine.”
The White House said Monday that Austin was talking about the US “objective to prevent” the Russian military from taking over Ukraine, and described it as consistent with the administration’s long-held goal.
Asked about the defense secretary’s comments, a National Security Council spokesperson said the US wants Ukraine to win and “that’s why we’re doing everything we can to help Ukraine defend its sovereignty and territorial integrity, and to strengthen the Ukrainians’ hands on the battlefield and at the negotiating table.”
A senior State Department official told the traveling press Monday that such negotiations are “evolving,” noting that “Russia’s hand has been weakened as a result of these first two months, Ukraine’s hand has been strengthened, that effects the positions that there would be in any negotiation,” but “part of the problem is as best we can tell there is no effective negotiation going on right now.”
US diplomats to return to Ukraine
The visit to Kyiv by Blinken and Austin makes them the highest-level US officials to have traveled to the country since the Russian invasion began in late February.
While in Kyiv, Blinken and Austin met with Zelensky, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, Defense Minister Oleksiy Reznikov and Interior Minister Denys Monastrysky for an extended, roughly 90-minute bilateral meeting, the senior State Department official said.
As part of the resumed US diplomatic presence in Ukraine, diplomats will “start with day trips into the Lviv” and “will graduate to potentially other parts of the country and ultimately, to resume presence in Kyiv,” according to a senior State Department official.
Blinken and Austin discussed the Biden administration’s intention to provide $713 million in additional foreign military financing to Ukraine and allied European and Balkan partners, according to the senior State Department official and a senior Defense Department official. Part of that new military assistance funding will help Ukraine transition to NATO-capable systems, the State Department official said. The two secretaries also discussed deliveries of recent US military assistance to Ukraine and the ongoing training for Ukrainian soldiers, the officials said.
Biden on Monday announced that he will nominate Bridget Brink as US ambassador to Ukraine. The post that has been without a confirmed ambassador since Marie Yovanovitch was recalled in May 2019. Brink is the current US ambassador to Slovakia.
Zelensky’s office issued a readout of the meeting on Monday, stressing the importance of the visit and saying the country “counts on the support of our partners.”
“We appreciate the unprecedented assistance of the United States to Ukraine,” Zelensky said, according to the readout. “I would like to thank President Biden personally and on behalf of the entire Ukrainian people for his leadership in supporting Ukraine, for his personal clear position. To thank all the American people, as well as the Congress for their bicameral and bipartisan support. We see it. We feel it.”
Officials reiterate no involvement by US forces
The traveling US press corps did not travel with the secretaries to the Ukrainian capital. In a background briefing, the State and Defense officials made clear that the US military would still not be involved directly in the war.
“The President has been very clear there will be no US troops fighting in Ukraine and that includes the skies over Ukraine,” the defense official said, adding, “This visit does not portend actual involvement by US forces.”
In the Monday press briefing, Austin said the US believes Ukraine can win the war against Russia with “the right equipment and the right support.”
“In terms of their ability to win — the first step in winning is believing that you can win. And so, they believe that we can win. We believe that we — they — can win, if they have the right equipment, the right support, and we’re going to do everything we can and continue to do everything we can,” Austin told reporters.
He said, “we’re going to push as hard as we can as quickly as we can to get them what they need”, adding that the nature of the fight between Ukraine and Russia has evolved. He said “they’re now focused on is a different type of terrain. So they need long-range fire.”
While officials hailed the trip as a testament to the US commitment to Ukraine, they have also faced questions about why Biden did not make the trip himself.
“The President of the United States is somewhat singular, in terms of what travel would require. So it goes well beyond what a Cabinet secretary would or what virtually any other world leader would require,” the State Department official noted.
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson visited the country earlier this month. Top officials from the EU and the Baltics have also visited Zelensky in Kyiv.
Fresh training for Ukrainians
Blinken and Austin’s visit came as the first tranche of about 50 Ukrainians will complete artillery training in a country outside Ukraine, the defense official said. Another tranche of about 50 Ukrainians will also begin training soon, the defense official said.
“The first tranche of artillery training is complete,” Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Sunday who traveled to the region with the secretaries in a briefing in Poland. “We train soldiers that will go back, and their colleagues will be able to follow and be all in on systems.”
Some of the howitzers included in the most recent military assistance package for Ukraine are already in the country, the defense official said. The howitzers are expected to be effective at this stage of the war as it’s shifted to the Donbas, where the terrain is suited to “long range” weaponry, Kirby said.
Kirby noted the speed with which the military assistance shipments has arrived in Ukraine and said that the decision for how to deploy the assistance is up to the Ukrainians.
“It’s not taking more than 24 to 48 hours depending on what’s being shipped and the availability of ground transportation to get it into Ukraine,” Kirby said. “As we’ve said before, when (the assistance is) transferred to Ukrainian hands, it’s Ukrainian property, and we are not dictating to them how fast they get it to the front line or what units get them.”
Military officials described to reporters the ongoing concern among NATO countries about the threat that Russia poses to them.
“Not just here in Poland, I think many of the countries are concerned about Russia’s next steps,” said Lt. Gen. John Stephen Kolasheski, the commanding general of V Corps in Poland. “And are very pleased to have the US military here working side by side — helping them develop their capabilities and capacity. … I think they are recognizing that Russia is currently and will be a threat in the future.”
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