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Blinken to Lavrov: US to Maintain Ukraine Support

FILE - Airmen assigned to the 437th Aerial Port Squadron, load equipment bound for Ukraine onto a C-5 Super Galaxy at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, Jan. 31, 2023.
FILE - Airmen assigned to the 437th Aerial Port Squadron, load equipment bound for Ukraine onto a C-5 Super Galaxy at Joint Base Charleston, South Carolina, Jan. 31, 2023.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday bluntly told his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, that the United States plans to support Ukraine “for as long as it takes” in its defense against Russia’s year-long invasion.

The State Department said the top diplomats for the two superpowers talked for 10 minutes on the sidelines of a gathering in India of top officials of the Group of 20 industrialized countries. It was their first discussion since meeting in Geneva in January last year, a month before Russia launched its invasion of neighboring Ukraine.


Blinken, Lavrov Meet Briefly as US-Russia Tensions Soar

The U.S. stance on Ukraine is not new, with President Joe Biden often publicly vowing to assist Ukraine militarily hold off Russian forces and condemning President Vladimir Putin for the invasion and his refusal to end it. But top officials from the two countries had not talked until Blinken met with Lavrov Thursday for their brief discussions.

There was no immediate reaction from Russia, with the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs denying the talks had even occurred.

Blinken told Lavrov a settlement of the war should occur in line with United Nations charter provisions that respect sovereignty and territorial integrity. Blinken said the U.S. and Ukraine want to end the war on that basis, but a State Department official said, “what could be missing is a similar determination from Moscow.”

Fierce fighting rages daily for control of eastern Ukraine, and Russia maintains its grip on Ukraine’s Crimea Peninsula, which it seized in 2014—a takeover that is not widely recognized throughout the world.

The State Department said Blinken also told Lavrov that Russia should rejoin the New START nuclear arms control treaty from which it recently withdrew and abide by the terms that call for each country to limit its stockpile of nuclear arms to 1,550 warheads and allows for inspections by both countries.

In addition, Blinken again called for the release of Paul Whelan, an American held by Russia and given a 16-year jail sentence in 2020 after being arrested in Moscow on suspicion of spying in 2018, an allegation the U.S. has rejected. Blinken said the U.S. had offered Russia a proposal for Whelan’s release that Moscow should accept, much as U.S. basketball star Brittney Griner was swapped for arms dealer Viktor Bout in December.

On the battlefield, authorities in Ukraine said Thursday a Russian missile struck an apartment building in the southern Ukrainian city of Zaporizhzhia, killing at least three people.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy posted on Telegram that the missile destroyed three floors of the building and that search efforts were ongoing.

“The terrorist state wants to turn every day for our people into a day of terror. But evil will not reign in our land,” Zelenskyy said. “We will drive all the occupiers out and they will definitely be held accountable for everything.”

Ukraine’s military reported Thursday that Russian forces “continue to advance and storm” the city of Bakhmut, which has been the site of fierce fighting for months.

Ukraine’s Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar said Wednesday that Kyiv has sent reinforcements to Bakhmut, even as Russian forces have gradually strengthened their position there. But she did not say how many troops were being deployed or how they would be used—whether as fighters to defend the city or possibly as logistical support if Ukraine decides to retreat.

The death toll at Bakhmut has been staggering for both sides. Ukraine has held on, but Russia’s troop reinforcements have allowed it to seize villages and towns around the city and surround it on three sides.

Much of the Russian fighting in and around Bakhmut has been conducted by troops from the Wagner Group, a mercenary paramilitary force whose leader, Yevgeny Prigozhin, has close ties to Putin.

Prigozhin said Wednesday in an audio message on social media that there was no sign that Ukrainian forces were retreating from the city.

Some information in this report came from The Associated Press, Agence France-Presse and Reuters.