KIEV: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denis Shmygal greet each other prior to their talks in Kiev yesterday. – AFP

KIEV, Ukraine: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken yesterday pressed Russia to pull troops and end its “aggressive” actions in Ukraine on a visit to Kiev in which he vowed to expand US support. The top US diplomat met Ukraine’s leadership and toured a somber memorial with photographs of some of the more than 13,000 people who have died fighting pro-Russian separatists since 2014, when Moscow seized the Crimean peninsula from Kiev. “We stand strongly with you,” Blinken told a joint news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

“We look to Russia to cease reckless and aggressive actions,” Blinken said.
Russia last month amassed 100,000 troops near the border and in Crimea, its biggest buildup since 2014, but quickly announced a pullback in what many saw as a test for the new US administration of President Joe Biden. But both Blinken and Zelensky said yesterday that the pullout had been limited.

“We’re aware that Russia has withdrawn some forces from the border with Ukraine, but we also see that significant forces remain there,” Blinken said. Zelensky said Ukraine still saw Russia flexing its muscle on the Black Sea and said it had only removed 3,000 to 3,500 troops from Crimea. But Zelensky said that there had been a decline in sniper fire, which has been a leading cause of casualties. Zelensky welcomed US support but said that Ukraine “desperately” needed more.

“We think that the decrease (of Russian troops near the border) is slow, therefore, perhaps, there still may be a threat. Nobody wants these surprises,” Zelensky said. The United States has earmarked $408 million in security aid for Ukraine this fiscal year and Blinken said he spoke in depth with Ukrainian leaders about their needs.

Turning page on Trump
Biden in his first three months in office has sought to toughen US resolve against Russia after his predecessor Donald Trump’s flirtation with President Vladimir Putin. Trump was notoriously fixated on conspiracy theories about Ukraine, triggering his first impeachment after he held up aid in an unsuccessful bid to pressure Zelensky to dig up dirt on Biden. Likely believing that the new US leadership presents greater opportunities after Trump kept him at arm’s length, the Ukrainian comedian-turned-president said that he had invited Biden to visit Ukraine.

Blinken replied that he would convey the invitation and that Biden hoped to visit eventually. Biden also has proposed a summit with Putin in a bid to bring stability to the relationship-making it all the more pressing to show solidarity with Ukraine first. Blinken arrived late Thursday from London where he joined other foreign ministers from the Group of Seven wealthy democracies in condemning Russia’s “irresponsible and destabilizing behavior” in Ukraine and elsewhere. Zelensky has renewed calls to speed up Ukraine’s entry into the NATO alliance in the face of fears about Russia. Western European nations, mindful of Russia’s response, have opposed Ukraine’s accession and the idea has met a cool response in Washington.

Pressure on corruption
Despite vows to support Ukraine, the Biden administration has also pressed Kiev on good governance-long a major concern for Western partners. Ahead of Blinken’s trip, the State Department criticized Ukraine for removing the head of state energy company Naftogaz, Andriy Kobolev, who had reduced Ukraine’s dependence on Russian gas deliveries and introduced reforms that improved the company’s public image. Blinken said the Biden administration would support “the vital work that Ukraine is undertaking to advance reforms, to tackle corruption, to implement a stronger foreign agenda based on our shared democratic values.”

“The work of reforming institutions is hard,” Blinken said. “There are powerful interests lined up against reform and anti-corruption efforts. Those include external forces like Russia but also internal forces like oligarchs and other powerful individuals who are pursuing their own narrow interests through illegitimate means at the expense of the interests of the Ukrainian people.”

Blinken will meet civil society on his one-day trip in a bid to press the reform agenda. He was also given a tour of an ornate Kiev monastery by Metropolitan Yepifaniy, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, who showed the top US diplomat a document marking the separation from Moscow’s authority. – AFP