Ukraine will demand heavy weapons when senior US officials visit Kiev

Rescuers work to remove debris from a building hit by a military attack during the Russian invasion in Odesa, Ukraine on April 24, 2022. (Reuters / Igor Tkachenko)
  • The United States has not confirmed visits from Blinken, Austin
  • The West sent more powerful weapons to Ukraine
  • Ukrainians celebrate Orthodox Easter all over Europe
  • Ukraine says the destruction of churches disrupts the celebrations
  • Moscow says military sites have been hit, Kiev says children killed

Ukraine will ask US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin for more powerful weapons during officials’ awaited visit to Kiev on Sunday as the Russian invasion enters its third month.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy said his country will overcome “dark times,” in a moving speech at the 1,000-year-old St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev to celebrate Orthodox Easter as fighting in the east overshadowed religious celebrations.

Blinken and Austin’s trip, previously announced by Zelenskiy, would be the highest-level visit to Ukraine by US officials since Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an invasion of the country on February 24.

The White House has not confirmed any visits, and the State Department and Pentagon have declined to comment. But Oleksiy Arestovych, a Zelenskiy adviser, said in a video on social media on Sunday that Blinken and Austin had arrived in Kiev and were arguing with the Ukrainian president.

“We are inspired by the resilience of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine in the face of President Putin’s brutal war of aggression,” Blinken said earlier on Twitter.

Zelenskiy on Twitter thanked US President Joe Biden and the US for leadership in supporting Ukraine.

After Ukrainian fighters forced Russia to withdraw from Kiev, the Moscow assault is now concentrated in the eastern Donbas region and the south of the country. With a semblance of normal life returning to the capital, several countries have reopened embassies in recent days and some residents who have fled the fighting have returned for Easter.

Moscow, which describes its actions in Ukraine as a “special military operation”, denies targeting civilians and rejects what Ukraine says is evidence of atrocities, saying Kiev staged them to undermine peace talks. .

Pope Francis asked for an Easter truce: “Stop the attacks to help the exhausted population. Stop, “he said.

Ukrainian refugees filled the churches of central Europe.

“I pray this horror in Ukraine will be over soon and we can go home,” said Nataliya Krasnopolskaia, who fled Odesa to Prague last month, one of more than 5 million Ukrainians estimated to have fled the country.

More equipment

Ukrainian officials plan to tell Blinken and Austin of the immediate need for more weapons, including anti-missile systems, anti-aircraft systems, armored vehicles and tanks, Zelenskiy aide Igor Zhovkva told NBC News on Sunday.

The United States and NATO allies have shown an increasing readiness to provide heavier equipment and more advanced weapon systems. Britain has promised to send military vehicles and is considering supplying British tanks to Poland to free the Russian-designed Warsaw T-72s for Ukraine.

Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan said after telephone talks with Zelenskiy that Ankara is ready to assist in negotiations with Russia. Zelenskiy said he discussed with Erdogan the need for the immediate evacuation of civilians from the southern city of Mariupol, site of the conflict’s biggest battle.

Russian forces again attempted to storm the Azovstal steel mill, which is the main Ukrainian stronghold left in Mariupol, on Sunday, Ukrainian officials said, adding that more than 1,000 civilians are also taking refuge there.

Ukraine proposed a “special” round of negotiations with Russia on Sunday to discuss the fate of Ukrainian civilians and troops still trapped in the city, although Moscow has yet to respond publicly.

The goal of the talks would be to establish an immediate ceasefire in Mariupol, “multi-day” humanitarian corridors and the release or exchange of Ukrainian fighters trapped in the plant, said Ukrainian Arestovych.

Serhiy Volyna, commander of the 36th Ukrainian Marine Brigade in Mariupol, said Russia was hitting the plant with air and artillery bombardments.

“We are suffering casualties, the situation is critical … we have a lot of injuries, (some) are dying … the situation is deteriorating rapidly,” Volyna said.

Moscow previously declared victory in the city and said it did not need to take the plant.

The capture of Mariupol would link pro-Russian separatists who control parts of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions that make up Donbas with the southern Crimean peninsula of the Black Sea, which Moscow seized in 2014.

Ukraine estimates that tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in Mariupol and claims that 100,000 civilians are still in the city. The United Nations and the Red Cross say the civilian toll is at least in the thousands.

‘human tragedy’

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, spiritual leader of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the world, asked for humanitarian corridors in Mariupol and other areas of Ukraine, where he said that “an indescribable human tragedy is unfolding”.

Donetsk governor Pavlo Kyrylenko said five people, including at least two children, were killed by Russian bombing in the area on Sunday.

Officials from the Kharkiv region said three people were killed and 14 injured during the bombing during the day and that Ukrainian forces launched counter-offensives that brought three villages back to Ukrainian control.

Arestovych said Russia was attempting to concentrate forces near the southeastern city of Hulyaipole in the Zaporizhzhia region and had moved forward 10 km (6.21 miles) in the past 24 hours, but that Ukrainian forces now they had slowed that advance.

The Ukrainian Armed Forces Operations Command said last week its forces in the Donetsk and Luhansk regions repelled 63 Russian attacks and destroyed 55 tanks and dozens of vehicles, including 13 tanks in the past 24 hours.

Russia said on Sunday that its missiles hit eight military targets overnight, including four weapons depots in the Kharkiv region and a facility in the Dnipropetrovsk region that produces explosives for the Ukrainian military.

Russian state news agency TASS quoted a local official as saying that a village in Russia’s Belgorod region on the Ukrainian border was bombed on the other side of the border on Sunday, but that there were no casualties or damage.

Reuters could not independently confirm the reports from either side.

British military intelligence said Ukrainian resistance was strong, especially in Donbas, despite some Russian conquests.

“Poor Russian morale and limited time to replenish, re-equip and reorganize forces from previous offensives are likely hampering the effectiveness of Russian combat,” he said.

—Reporting by Pavel Polityuk, Natalia Zinets, Susan Heavey and other Reuters reporters; Written by Kim Coghill, Edmund Blair, Emma Thomasson and Michael Martina; Editing by Frances Kerry, Frank Jack Daniel, Daniel Wallis and Diane Craft