Blinken heads to Ukraine in show of support amid Russia tensions

US secretary of state expected to urge Ukrainian President Zelenskyy to stick to path of reforms and anti-corruption.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives at Boryspil International airport outside Kyiv, Ukraine [Efrem Lukatsky/Pool via Reuters]

The top United States diplomat will visit Kyiv on Thursday in a show of support after Russia amassed troops near Ukraine’s eastern border in a weeks-long standoff that drew concern in Western nations.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to meet President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and urge the country to stick to a path of reforms and fighting corruption, days after a reformist energy official was sacked.US President Joe Biden pledged “unwavering support” to Zelenskyy in April as Kyiv and Moscow traded blame for clashes in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region and Russia deployed troops and weapons to the border.

Moscow announced a withdrawal of its forces on April 22, helping pave the way for a summit between Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin that could take place as early as June.

The standoff prompted Ukraine to call for the US and Europe to help speed up Kyiv’s entry into the NATO military alliance. Blinken discussed Russia’s troop build-up at a meeting with NATO allies in Brussels last month, the Reuters news agency reported.

Blinken’s visit to Kyiv comes as the Biden administration is seeking to resolve tensions with Moscow ahead of the potential summit meeting with Putin.

“We see this visit as a signal of extremely strong support from the United States in countering Russian hybrid aggression,” Ukrainian Deputy Foreign Minister Yevhenii Yenin said ahead of Blinken’s arrival.

Blinken said on May 3 in London that he would use the visit to show “our unwavering support for the independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine”, the Associated Press news agency reported.

Other US officials have said he would press for institutional reform and anti-corruption measures. “There is a lot of hard work to be done to ensure a brighter future for all Ukrainians,” the top US diplomat for Europe, Philip Reeker, said last week.

Blinken will be accompanied by Under Secretary of State Victoria Nuland, the department’s No 3 top official. Nuland has been a longtime critic of Moscow and an advocate for Western support of Ukrainian reformers.

Washington has been Kyiv’s most powerful backer since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014 and the outbreak of the Donbas conflict between Ukrainian soldiers and Russian-backed separatist forces, which has killed 14,000 people in seven years.

The relationship was tested in 2019 when then-US President Donald Trump asked Zelenskyy to investigate Biden and the business activities of his son Hunter Biden in Ukraine. The Trump administration temporarily froze US security aid to Kyiv.

The fallout from those events, which led to Trump’s first impeachment trial in the US Congress, continued last week as US federal agents raided the apartment and office of Trump’s former personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, in relation to his activities in Ukraine.

Giuliani’s lawyer has said federal investigators were looking into Giuliani’s role in forcing the removal of former US Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch in 2019.

Yovanovitch had campaigned against corruption in Ukraine during her tour as ambassador, irritating Kremlin-allied business and government figures.

During his visit this week, Blinken is expected to press Zelenskyy’s government on the dismissal of Andriy Kobolyev as head of the state energy firm Naftogaz, a position he had held since 2014.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies