Antony Blinken tries to rally Ukrainian spirits in surprise Kyiv visit

Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy greets Antony Blinken. Credit: AP

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has attempted to rally the spirits of Ukraine and its allies in a surprise visit to Kyiv after a fierce Russian offensive forced retreats in the east of the country.

Less than a month ago Congress approved a long-delayed foreign assistance package which set aside $60 billion (£47.8 billion) in aid for Ukraine, much of which will go towards replenishing badly depleted artillery and air defence systems.

After a day of meetings with senior officials, civil society figures and university students during which he exhorted them against being discouraged, Mr Blinken took to the stage at a Kyiv bar to play rhythm guitar with a local band on Neil Young's 1989 hit Rockin' in the Free World.

Despite the incoming weapons, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed to him personally for more air defence systems to protect civilians under intense Russian fire in the northeast.

Mr Blinken told students at Kyiv Polytechnic Institue: “We meet at a critical moment. The coming weeks and months will demand a great deal of Ukrainians, who have already sacrificed so much.

“I’ve come to Ukraine with a message: You are not alone."

“We sometimes hear that time is on Putin’s side,” Mr Blinken added.

“That Russia’s bigger population, Putin’s willingness to throw more Russians into the meat grinder of his making, and sink more of Russia’s resources into trying to subjugate Ukraine means that Russia can’t lose.”

“In fact, Russia’s been losing the battle to control Ukraine’s destiny for 20 years. And Putin has it wrong - time is on Ukraine’s side.

“As the war goes on, Russia is going back in time. Ukraine is moving forward.”

Blinken played Neil Young's 1989 hit Rockin' in the Free World in a Kyiv bar. Credit: AP

Despite Mr Blinken's warm words, Russian troops have seized 40 to 50 square miles, including seven villages in the northeastern Kharkiv in recent weeks.

The Kremlin’s forces have also been making a concerted push in the east, seeking to drive deeper into the partly occupied Donetsk region.

“We know this is a challenging time,” Mr Blinken told President Zelenskyy in his first meeting of the day, after arriving in Kyiv on an overnight train from Poland.

But he added that American military aid is “going to make a real difference against the ongoing Russian aggression on the battlefield”.

Moscow’s renewed offensive in Kharkiv is the most significant border incursion since the early days of the war - and comes after months when the roughly 620-mile long front line barely budged.

More than 7,500 civilians have been evacuated from the area, according to authorities. At the same time, the Kremlin’s forces are expanding their push to the northern border regions of Sumy and Chernihiv, Ukrainian officials say, and Kyiv's outgunned and outnumbered soldiers are struggling to hold them back.

President Zelenskyy thanked Mr Blinken for the US aid, but added that more is necessary, including two Patriot air defence systems urgently needed to protect Kharkiv.

Blinken arrived in Kyiv in a train from Poland. Credit: AP

“The people are under attack: civilians, warriors, everybody. They’re under Russian missiles,” he said.

Mr Blinken went with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba for lunch at a Kyiv pizza restaurant founded by Ukrainian veterans, pronouncing it “superb”.

On Mr Blinken’s last visit, the pair ate at a recently reopened McDonald’s restaurant.

Mr Blinken's speech to students extolling Ukraine's “strategic successes” in the war was billed as a complement to one he gave last year in Helsinki, Finland, deriding Putin for Moscow’s “strategic failures” in launching the war.

Meanwhile, Putin plans to make a two-day state visit to China this week, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said.

Beijing has backed Moscow politically in the war and has sent machine tools, electronics and other items seen as contributing to the Russian war effort, without actually exporting weaponry.

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