Antony Blinken, US secretary of state, reaffirmed Washington’s support for Ukraine during a two-day visit to Kyiv in which he pledged to “stand by” the country’s side in the face of Russian aggression.
The visit, one of the diplomat’s first foreign trips as secretary of state, comes weeks after Russia amassed more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern border and in Russian occupied Crimea.
Addressing Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky on Thursday, Blinken said the US and its allies did not recognise Russia’s illegal 2014 annexation of the Crimean peninsula and would continue to provide military assistance as Kyiv enters its eighth year of conflict with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region.
“We are aware that Russia has withdrawn some forces from the border of Ukraine, but we also see that significant forces remain there, and equipment remains there. We are monitoring the situation very, very closely,” Blinken said.
But he also used the talks to urge Zelensky to speed up corporate governance reforms and anti-corruption efforts, including an overhaul of Ukraine’s graft-prone judiciary. Disbursements from a $5bn IMF programme have been frozen since last year because of concern about the reform process.
The US diplomat said Ukraine faced twin challenges: “Aggression from outside coming from Russia and in effect aggression from within coming from . . . oligarchs and others who are putting their interests ahead of those of the Ukrainian people.”
Last week Ukraine’s government ousted the supervisory board and top executive of Naftogaz, the state gas company that had just announced deep financial losses for 2020.
Zelensky is hoping for a reboot in US-Ukraine relations which were shaken after former President Donald Trump pressured him to investigate the business dealings of Joe Biden’s son Hunter, triggering his first impeachment trial. The Ukrainian president described Thursday’s talks as “very essential and significant”.
In a Financial Times interview last month Zelensky called on the US and UK to play a bigger role in peace talks with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin aimed at ending the war in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and helping Kyiv to regain control of Crimea. Since 2015 faltering peace talks have been led by France and Germany.
On Thursday, Blinken accused Russia of “not engaging in good faith in trying to resolve both Crimea of course and the Donbas”, adding: “We will always continue to explore ways to see if there are opportunities to advance the diplomacy.”
Ukraine hopes to obtain defensive weapons including Patriot missiles on top of Javelin anti-tank busters, the first US-sanctioned lethal military assistance for Kyiv, which was acquired under the Trump administration.
“We will continue to strengthen our security partnership . . . to make sure Ukraine can defend itself,” Blinken said without going into further detail.
Biden is due to hold discussions with Ukraine’s anti-corruption activists and representatives of the business community later on Thursday.