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Blinken Makes Surprise Kyiv Visit As Zelenskyy Claims Counteroffensive Gains

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(RFE/RL) — U.S. Secretary Antony Blinken made a surprise visit to Kyiv on September 8 as the United States pledged another $2.675 billion in aid to Ukraine and other countries to bolster security in Europe amid Russia’s unprovoked invasion of its neighbor.

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Blinken, who interrupted a trip to Poland to visit the Ukrainian capital, met for two hours with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who later claimed that Ukrainian forces had taken back land in the north, south, and east.

“Our heroes have already liberated dozens of settlements. And today this movement continued,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly address.

“In total, more than a thousand square kilometers have been liberated since September 1,” he said shortly after announcing the recapture of Balaklia in the eastern Kharkiv region, a town which fell to Russian forces in early March.

Vitaly Ganchev, a local pro-Russian official, disputed the claim about Balaklia, telling Russian state TV that Russian forces had fought off a Ukrainian attempt to encircle and capture the town and it remained in Russian hands.

In the area around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second city, forces penetrated 50 kilometers beyond Russian lines and “liberated” more than 20 towns and villages, senior military official Oleksiy Hromov said.

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The claims could not be independently verified, but Ukraine has for weeks talked about a big counteroffensive in the south around Kherson. Western military analysts say Russia may have left itself exposed in the Kharkiv region and other areas as it rushed to reinforce its forces in the south.

The Kharkiv region was shelled on September 8, with missiles striking the regional center and Chuguyiv region, said Kharkiv regional Governor Oleh Sinehubov. One woman died as a result of the shelling, he wrote on Telegram.

Kharkiv Mayor Ihor Terekhov said there were no victims in the city, which comes under Russian missile attacks almost daily.

During his visit to Kyiv, Blinken also highlighted a “real effectiveness” in the counteroffensive in the south.

“It’s very early, but we are seeing clear and real progress on the ground, particularly in the area around Kherson, but also some interesting developments in the Donbas in the east,” Blinken told reporters.

“We are proud of the fact that our support and the support of so many other countries is helping to enable what the Ukrainians are doing — working to liberate territory seized by Russia in this aggression,” he said. “At the end of the day, the thing that fundamentally makes a difference is that this is Ukraine’s homeland, not Russia’s.”

Blinken announced more than $2 billion in new aid from the Foreign Military Financing program to bolster the security of Ukraine and 18 of its neighbors — including some NATO countries — and regional security partners “most potentially at risk for future Russian aggression.”

Zelenskiy said the visit “once again demonstrates the leadership position of the United States in supporting our country and the fight for freedom.”

He said Ukraine appreciates the financial, economic, and defense assistance from the United States.

“For us, this is a guarantee that we can return our lands,” Zelenskiy said, thanking Blinken for “everything you do for Ukraine and for being by my side today.”

In a statement, Blinken said he reiterated to Zelenskiy and his team that President Joe Biden has been clear that the United States will support the people of Ukraine for as long as it takes and vowed that Kyiv “will remain the capital of a sovereign, independent Ukraine.”

The visit came hours after U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said the Biden administration had approved a further $675 million worth of weapons for Ukraine, adding that Washington is seeing “demonstrable success” on the battlefield by Ukraine against Russian troops, who invaded the country in late February.

“This is the Biden administration’s 20th drawdown of equipment from U.S. stocks for Ukraine since last August,” Austin said at the start of a meeting of dozens of defense ministers on September 8 at the Ramstein air base in Germany, adding that the package would include 105-millimeter howitzers, precision-guided GMLRS rockets, and artillery ammunition.

The aid announced on September 8 brings to $15.2 billion the total provided to Ukraine by the United States under the Biden administration.

The defense ministers’ meeting was to discuss issues such as how to coordinate the training of Ukrainian troops and how to support Kyiv with military aid over the long haul as the six-month-old conflict settles into a war of attrition fought primarily in eastern and southern Ukraine.

U.S. General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Ukraine is using its modern Western weapons to devastating effect, striking hundreds of Russian targets with the U.S.-supplied high-mobility artillery rocket systems (HIMARS).

“We are seeing real and measurable gains from Ukraine in the use of these systems. For example, the Ukrainians have struck over 400 targets with the HIMARS and they’ve had devastating effect,” Milley said, speaking to reporters after the meeting at Ramstein air base.

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RFE/RL journalists report the news in 21 countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.

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