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U.S. reiterates stance on Ukraine

Blinken visits, highlights nation’s inside, outside challenges by YURAS KARMANAU THE ASSOCIATED PRESS | May 7, 2021 at 4:00 a.m.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy (left) and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (second from right) attend Thursday talks in Kyiv, Ukraine. (AP/Ukrainian Presidential Press Office)

KYIV, Ukraine -- U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken reaffirmed Washington's support for Ukraine at a meeting Thursday with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the wake of Kyiv's heightened tensions with Russia, fueled by Moscow's recent troop buildup near their border.

The top American diplomat met with Zelenskyy during his one-day visit and reiterated the U.S. commitment to Ukraine's "sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence," while also underscoring the importance of Ukrainian efforts to tackle widespread corruption and carry out changes.

"Ukraine is facing two challenges: aggression from outside, coming from Russia, and in effect aggression from within, coming from corruption, oligarchs and others who are putting their interests ahead of those of the Ukrainian people," Blinken said at a news conference after meeting with Zelenskyy.

By visiting so early in his tenure, before any trip to Russia, Blinken signaled that Ukraine is a high priority for President Joe Biden's foreign policy. His visit was highly anticipated in Ukraine, with hopes for increased military aid and strong support for NATO membership being voiced on the front lines of the battle against Russia-backed separatists in the east and in the halls of government in Kyiv.

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Ukraine has seen an increase in hostilities in the east in recent months. Ukraine's military says 35 of its soldiers have been killed by rebel attacks this year, a significant rise from the latter part of 2020. Russia, which claims it has no soldiers in eastern Ukraine, fueled the tensions this year by massing troops and conducting large-scale military exercises near the border.

Zelenskyy has made it clear that he wants significant action -- "a clear signal about the European and Euro-Atlantic prospect," as he said Monday on Twitter, referring to Ukraine's aspirations to join NATO and the European Union. "Postponing these issues for 'later,' 'some day,' '10 years' has to end."

Blinken said the U.S. was "actively looking" at strengthening its security assistance to Ukraine, but didn't give details.

Zelenskyy also said the military support and the financial support from the U.S. "is increasing," but didn't elaborate.

Both noted that while Russia has pulled back some of its forces from the border, a significant number of troops and equipment remain. Blinken said Washington was watching the situation "very, very closely," as "Russia has the capacity, on fairly short notice, to take aggressive action if it so chooses."

"I can tell you, Mr. President, that we stand strongly with you," Blinken said.

In Brussels on Thursday, NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg also said the 30-nation military alliance "needs to stay vigilant and closely monitor the developments" in and around Ukraine. "We have seen some reduction in the number of Russian troops, but tens of thousands remain, and we also see that Russia has kept a lot of weapons, prepositioned equipment, and they're also imposing restrictions in the Black Sea," Stoltenberg told reporters.

Efforts have stalled to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine, which has killed more than 14,000 people since it broke out in 2014. Zelenskyy has called for the U.S. to try to push these efforts forward by joining the negotiations of the "Normandy Format" that consists of Russia, Ukraine, Germany and France. Russia is almost certain to oppose any U.S. involvement in the negotiations.

Earlier this week, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said Ukraine also was worried about Russia's announcement last month that it was redeploying warships from its Caspian flotilla to the Sea of Azov, an extension of the Black Sea that borders Ukraine and Russia. "There is now a big threat in the Sea of Azov; it is unprecedentedly large," Kuleba said.

Zelenskyy said he discussed security in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov with Blinken, but wouldn't reveal any details.

He also said he invited Biden to visit Ukraine this year, and Blinken said the president would "welcome the opportunity at the right time."

Earlier in the day, Blinken met with Kuleba, and they both joined the cleric Metropolitan Epiphaniy -- head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which split from Russia's Orthodox Church. They laid flowers at a memorial to Ukrainian soldiers killed in the conflict in the east and toured St. Michael's Monastery.

Blinken also met with Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal, who tweeted that the visit was "a manifestation of firm support and a high level of relations of two states," and with Ukrainian lawmakers.

FILE - In this Tuesday, May 4, 2021 file photo, Ukrainian soldiers walk next to a destroyed house near a fighting position on the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels near Donetsk, Ukraine. Soldiers anxiety is high amid an increase in attacks this year. After a long period of tense quiet last year, 34 soldiers have been killed this year by firing from the separatists. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)
FILE - In this Tuesday, May 4, 2021 file photo, Ukrainian soldiers walk next to a destroyed house near a fighting position on the line of separation from pro-Russian rebels near Donetsk, Ukraine. Soldiers anxiety is high amid an increase in attacks this year. After a long period of tense quiet last year, 34 soldiers have been killed this year by firing from the separatists. (AP Photo/Felipe Dana, File)
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken greets Ukrainian policemen upon departure from Boryspil International airport outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, May 6, 2021. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has met with top Ukrainian officials in Kyiv and reaffirmed Washington's support for the country in the wake of heightened tensions with Russia. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken greets Ukrainian policemen upon departure from Boryspil International airport outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, May 6, 2021. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has met with top Ukrainian officials in Kyiv and reaffirmed Washington's support for the country in the wake of heightened tensions with Russia. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pays respect the Memorial Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine in Russian-Ukrainian War in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, May 6, 2021.  (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pays respect the Memorial Wall of Fallen Defenders of Ukraine in Russian-Ukrainian War in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, May 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, Pool)
In this photo released by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, attend the during their meeting talks in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, May 6, 2021. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has met with top Ukrainian officials in Kyiv and reaffirmed Washington's support for the country in the wake of heightened tensions with Russia, fueled by its recent troop buildup. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
In this photo released by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, attend the during their meeting talks in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, May 6, 2021. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has met with top Ukrainian officials in Kyiv and reaffirmed Washington's support for the country in the wake of heightened tensions with Russia, fueled by its recent troop buildup. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
In this photo released by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, attend the during their meeting talks in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
In this photo released by the Ukrainian Presidential Press Office, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, left, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, attend the during their meeting talks in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, May 6, 2021. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP)
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves upon departure from Boryspil International airport outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, May 6, 2021. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has met with top Ukrainian officials in Kyiv and reaffirmed Washington's support for the country in the wake of heightened tensions with Russia. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, Pool)
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves upon departure from Boryspil International airport outside Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, May 6, 2021. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has met with top Ukrainian officials in Kyiv and reaffirmed Washington's support for the country in the wake of heightened tensions with Russia. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, Pool)
FILE - In this April 9, 2021 file photo, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits the war-hit Donbas region, eastern Ukraine. Ukrainians hold strong hopes for the visit of the U.S. Secretary of State — increased military aid and strong support for NATO membership among them. By coming to Ukraine so early in his tenure, before any trip to Russia, Antony Blinken is signaling that Ukraine is a high foreign-policy priority for the President Joe Biden administration. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP, File)
FILE - In this April 9, 2021 file photo, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy visits the war-hit Donbas region, eastern Ukraine. Ukrainians hold strong hopes for the visit of the U.S. Secretary of State — increased military aid and strong support for NATO membership among them. By coming to Ukraine so early in his tenure, before any trip to Russia, Antony Blinken is signaling that Ukraine is a high foreign-policy priority for the President Joe Biden administration. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via AP, File)
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, right, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, greet each other by touching elbows to curb the spread of COVID-19 ahead of their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, May 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, Pool)
Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, right, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, greet each other by touching elbows to curb the spread of COVID-19 ahead of their meeting in Kyiv, Ukraine, Thursday, May 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky, Pool)
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