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US Diplomats Begin to Return to Ukraine

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin attend a meeting with Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, as Russia's attack on Ukraine continues, in Kyiv, Ukraine April 24, 2022.

U.S. diplomats will start returning to Ukraine this week, and the United States is sending more military aid to help Ukraine's war effort against Russia, as senior U.S. officials pledged Monday to continue supporting Ukraine and rallying other nations to contribute.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters in Poland after visiting Kyiv along with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin that while Russia is trying to "brutalize" parts of Ukraine, "Ukrainians are standing strong, and they're doing that with the support that we have coordinated from literally around the world."

"In terms of Russia's war aims, Russia has already failed," Blinken said, "And Ukraine has already succeeded because the principal aim that (Russian) President (Vladimir) Putin brought to this, in his own words, was to fully subsume Ukraine back into Russia, to take away its sovereignty and independence, and that has not happened and clearly will not happen."

Still, Russia launched new attacks Monday, hitting rail and fuel installations far from the front line of its eastern offensive.

The chief of the state-run Ukrainian Railways said five railway facilities were hit early Monday in central and western Ukraine, including a missile attack near the western city of Lviv. At least five people were killed by Russian strikes in the central Vynnytsia region, Ukrainian authorities said.

In all, the Russian Defense Ministry said its warplanes destroyed 56 Ukrainian targets overnight. Meanwhile, two fires were reported at oil facilities in western Russia, not far from the Ukrainian border. But it was not clear what caused the blazes.

Blinken said he and Austin met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and other officials for about three hours to both demonstrate U.S. support and to hear from Zelenskyy what his country needs as the conflict moves forward.

"We want to do everything we can to help the Ukrainians bring this to an end on the best possible terms as quickly as possible," Blinken said.

The train ride to Kyiv for top U.S. officials' Sunday meeting with Zelenskyy took 11 hours each way. The train went through mostly countryside. The blinds were mostly down but U.S. officials were able to peek out every once in a while.

Zelenskyy was described by a senior administration official as "very focused, very grounded, very detail-oriented" on different aspects of Ukraine's security, economic, humanitarian needs, and the sanctions against Russia during the meeting.

"I think (Zelenskyy looked) extraordinarily well, remarkably well," the official said.

Zelenskyy's office said Monday the discussions included security guarantees along with defense and financial aid for Ukraine. A statement said the Ukrainian side put a particular focus on increasing sanctions against Russia. "We understand what the next steps on this track should be. And we count on the support of our partners," Zelenskyy said.

The United States is providing further foreign military financing to Ukraine to help the country obtain more advanced weapons and air defense systems to fend off Russian attacks, according to senior U.S. officials.

"We intend to obligate more than $713 million in foreign military financing," a senior State official said. "This includes funding for Ukraine and 15 other allies and partner nations in central and eastern Europe, in the Balkans. ... And it will provide support for capabilities Ukraine needs, especially for the fight in the Donbas."

With the new assistance in foreign military financing, the U.S. would have committed about $3.4 billion in security assistance to Ukraine since Russia's invasion began, and more than $4.3 billion since the start of the Biden administration.

Returning U.S. diplomats will go first to the western city of Lviv and then eventually to Kyiv, a process that Blinken said could take several weeks.

U.S. President Joe Biden is also set to formally nominate Bridget Brink, currently U.S. ambassador to Slovakia, to be U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

Several European Union and NATO member countries are sending their diplomats back to Kyiv, including Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, France, Italy, Slovakia and Slovenia. The British government announced Friday that it would shortly reopen its embassy in Kyiv.

The return of foreign diplomats is seen as a sign of some semblance of safety in Ukraine after almost two months of Russia's shelling and bombing.

The visit to Kyiv came ahead of Tuesday's consultations between the U.S. and dozens of allies at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, where Austin will discuss Ukraine's long-term defense needs.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg and Ukrainian Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov will attend Tuesday's meetings.

On Tuesday's agenda: an update on battlefield conditions, Ukraine's resistance amid Russia's attacks, upcoming security assistance to Ukraine, and Ukraine's willingness and ability to move away from Russian-made systems.

Russia's Defense Ministry said Russian forces would observe a cease-fire and open a humanitarian corridor for civilians Monday around the Azovstal steel factory in the southern city of Mariupol, where Ukrainian forces have been holed up and defiantly refusing Russian demands to surrender.

Last week, Putin ordered a tight blockade of the facility that Russian forces have struggled to take over from perhaps thousands of Ukraine fighters and civilians who have remained in control of the plant with its labyrinth of tunnels and passageways.

Britain's Defense Ministry said Monday Ukraine's defense of Mariupol has "exhausted" many Russian units and reduced their combat effectiveness. The ministry added that Russia has "yet to achieve a significant breakthrough" since turning its focus in Ukraine to the eastern Donbas region.