Kiev, Ukraine – Foreign Minister Antony J. Blinken told the Ukrainian President on Thursday that the United States strongly supported his country’s sovereignty against Russia’s military aggression, but also warned that the embattled country was threatened by “internal forces”, including powerful oligarchs who thrive on corruption.
Mr Blinken also said that despite Russia’s recently announced plans to withdraw many of the 100,000 troops it raised on the border with Ukraine this spring in an alarming show of force, a clear military threat remained.
“Russia has withdrawn some forces, but significant forces remain on the Ukrainian border,” noted Blinken. “And so, on a fairly short-term basis, Russia has the ability to take aggressive action if it so wishes.” Mr Blinken added that the United States “was watching this very, very closely”.
Mr Blinken spoke at a joint press conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, who thanked the first high-ranking Biden official to visit Kiev since President Donald J. Trump left office. The former president embroiled Mr Zelensky in a global scandal that the Ukrainian leader clearly hopes to forget.
When asked whether the efforts of Mr. Trump’s personal attorney, Rudolph Giuliani, in 2019 had “pushed back” efforts to drive corruption out of Ukraine’s political system, Mr. Zelensky boasted of his reform record and said he hoped that the matter was closed.
“Let’s not talk about the past,” he said. “Let us let the past be the past and let us discuss the future.”
This can be difficult with an active F.B.I. Investigations against Mr Giuliani, which culminated in a raid on his home and office last week. According to reports, federal agents were looking for evidence of his role in dismissing the American ambassador to Ukraine in May 2019, allegedly at the behest of Mr Giuliani’s Ukrainian staff.
For his part, Mr Blinken maneuvered a question with Mr Giuliani, but reminded Mr Zelensky – whose reform report has received mixed reviews – that “the effective fight against corruption is one of the most important issues for the Ukrainian people and for their lives is of vital importance improve. “
“There are strong interests against reforms, against the fight against corruption,” said Blinken. “This includes external forces like Russia, but also internal forces like oligarchs and other powerful people who are pursuing their own narrow interests.”
As Ukraine struggles to remove corruption from its political system, fueled in part by a Kremlin seeking to destabilize its pro-Washington government, the country fights off a Moscow-backed, pro-Russian separatist insurgency in the east of the country Country. According to the United Nations, the fighting in the region has claimed more than 13,000 lives.
To sustain this conflict and weather any new offensive by Russia, Ukrainian officials are keen to get more military support and potential arms sales from Washington, which is currently sending Ukraine more than $ 400 million in military aid annually. Mr Blinken said that the Biden administration was working “very actively” on the issue but was not offering any further details.
But Mr Blinken underscored his concern about Ukraine’s military plight with a morning visit to an outdoor memorial to soldiers who died in the conflict in the east. Known as the Wall of National Remembrance, the memorial features hundreds of photographs of the fallen strolling along an outer wall of St. Michael, a 12th-century monastery and church.
In driving rain, Mr. Blinken, accompanied by high-ranking figures from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the country’s foreign minister, knelt down to lay flowers at the foot of the wall.
Mr. Blinken later told Mr. Zelensky that the pictures of the fallen had touched him personally.
“We were able to pay tribute to those who lost their lives defending Ukrainian democracy,” he said. “And it’s very, very moving to be on the wall.”
“You see each of them in these pictures – and you think of the mothers and fathers, the sisters and brothers, the children who lost loved ones in defending Ukraine, and it’s very, very powerful,” he added added.
In September 2019 a C.I.A. Whistleblower revealed that in a phone call with Mr Zelensky in June 2019, Mr Trump had pressured him to announce an investigation into Mr Biden, then a Democratic presidential candidate, and Mr Biden’s son, Hunter, who worked for a Ukrainian utility company. Mr Trump withheld U.S. military aid to Ukraine when he pressed his request. The episode led to Mr. Trump’s first impeachment trial and a painfully uncomfortable experience for Mr. Zelensky.
In a remark to U.S. Embassy staff during a virtual visit with them, Mr Blinken alluded to the chaos of events that led to Mr Trump’s impeachment – including the politicized removal of American Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch – created at the State Department .
“I know the last few years have been particularly difficult,” he said. “Even before Covid, Ukraine – and this mission – got embroiled in affairs and that shouldn’t have been the case. And one thing that is very important is that politics stop at the C Street door, and it is now. ”
After his meetings with Ukrainian officials, Mr. Blinken held a round table on corruption and reform, which was attended mainly by representatives of civil society who were “at the forefront” in a second struggle for democracy in Ukraine.
During the joint appearance with Mr. Blinken, the Ukrainian guide said he hoped that Mr. Biden himself could visit Ukraine soon. Mr Blinken cited travel restrictions due to the coronavirus, but said the American president “will welcome the opportunity at the right time”.
Mr. Blinken was joined by a longtime ally of the Ukrainians, Victoria Nuland, the newly confirmed Secretary of the Foreign Ministry for Political Affairs. Ms. Nuland, a foreign service official and senior State Department official in the Obama administration, left the administration in early 2017 but was selected as the number 3 official in the department that year.
Ms. Nuland is known in Kiev – and was insulted in the Kremlin – for distributing food in 2013 on the Independence Square of the Ukrainian capital, known as the Maidan, in the prelude to the overthrow of Russian Viktor F. Yanukovych. supported the President of Ukraine at the time. It was the revolution in March 2014 and Putin’s fears that the former Soviet republic could be brought closer into harmony with the West that sparked Putin’s annexation of the Ukrainian Crimean peninsula and his instigation of an uprising in eastern Ukraine.
Your presence was clearly appreciated. At the beginning of a morning meeting with Mr Blinken, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kubela congratulated Ms. Nuland on her appointment. He noticed laughing that one of the few major events on the Maidan that he had missed “Was your cookies” although she said they were actually sandwiches she passed around, not cookies.
In Russia, Ms. Nuland is seen very differently: A. Article from July 2020 On the website of the Kremlin-funded RT network, she named the Maidan midwife and described her Hawk political views on Russia as “stupid, delusional and dangerous”.