Emboldened by Ukraine’s Grit, U.S. Wants to See Russia Weakened

The United States toughened its messaging on the Ukraine war on Monday, saying the American aim was not just to thwart the Russian invasion but also to weaken Russia so it could no longer carry out such military aggression anywhere.

The aim was stated in explicit terms by the highest-ranking Biden administration delegation to visit Ukraine since the war began. It reflected an emboldened intent to counter Russia by giving more numerous and powerful arms to the Ukrainians, who have battled Russian forces with unexpected tenacity, sapped Kremlin resources and flustered President Vladimir V. Putin’s hope for a quick victory.

The American delegation also announced that the United States would reopen its embassy in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv — another signal aimed at portraying Russia as headed toward defeat. The embassy, closed in the run-up to the Feb. 24 invasion, will be led by a newly appointed ambassador.

The American visit itself, led over the weekend by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, was completed early Monday and amounted to a risky dare to Russia, which has been seeking to subjugate Ukraine by force for more than two months. Russia has demanded that the United States and its NATO allies quit supplying advanced arms to Ukraine’s military.

Although the trip was supposed to be secret, word leaked, and Russia rained rockets on at least five Ukrainian rail stations hours after the visitors had finished talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv and then traveled by rail to Poland, which can take 11 hours. It is unclear whether they were in Ukraine during any part of those attacks or whether Russia had been targeting them.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III speaking with reporters in Poland after returning from their trip to Ukraine on Monday.Credit…Pool photo by Alex Brandon

Ukraine’s railways and other infrastructure are important for funneling Western-supplied weapons and aid to the combat zones in the former Soviet republic, which Mr. Putin has said he does not consider a real country.

Speaking in Poland after the trip, Mr. Austin said that Russia had suffered significant military losses so far, including “a lot of its troops.” He said the Pentagon was working to ensure that Russia could not “very quickly reproduce that capability.”

Mr. Austin and Mr. Blinken planned to hold detailed discussions on what support Ukraine needed to prevail at a meeting with allies on Tuesday in Germany.

“We want to see Russia weakened to the degree it cannot do the kinds of things that it has done in invading Ukraine,” Mr. Austin said.

The United States has agreed to provide not only advanced American-made weapons to Ukraine but also newly made ammunition for Soviet-designed arms, since the Ukrainian forces still use many weapons dating to that time. On Monday, the State Department said the United States was giving Ukraine $165 million in artillery shells, rockets and grenades compatible with Soviet-designed weapons.

Mr. Blinken, who said that Russia had already been thwarted in its goal of destroying the Ukrainian state, told reporters that he expected the American Embassy in Kyiv to reopen in a few weeks. The administration nominated Bridget Brink, the current U.S. ambassador to Slovakia, as the new envoy to Ukraine.

“Russia is failing,” Mr. Blinken said. “Ukraine is succeeding.”

There was every sign on Monday that Russia saw the visit as a provocation to escalate the conflict. Besides the rocket assaults on Ukraine’s railways, Russian attacks in the east knocked out electricity for the entire province of Luhansk, leaving tens of thousands without power, local government officials said.

Elsewhere, an Orthodox Easter lull was shattered in the northeast city of Kharkiv, where Russia resumed shelling and widened the devastation. And on the other side of the country, explosions shook Transnistria, a Russia-aligned breakaway region of Moldova that borders Ukraine. Hundreds of Russian troops are deployed in Transnistria, and Ukrainian defense officials accused Russia of causing the explosions as a pretext to invade Ukraine from that direction.

The Saltivka neighborhood of Kharkiv has been under steady bombardment for weeks, forcing many residents to evacuate.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

Other developments on Monday pointed to further escalation. Russia said it was expelling 40 German diplomats in response to Germany’s expulsion of Russians. And in Bryansk, a Russian logistical military hub less than 100 miles from the Ukrainian border, large fires of mysterious origins engulfed oil storage depots.

Russia’s initial aim of conquering Ukraine by besieging the capital and bombarding other big cities was hampered by flawed logistics, poor soldier morale and fierce resistance that forced a Russian retreat. In a new phase of the war, the Russians have been focusing their attacks on securing eastern Ukraine, where Russia-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014.

Several Biden administration officials said the messaging by Mr. Austin and Mr. Blinken was partly aimed at giving Mr. Zelensky the strongest possible hand for what they expect will be some kind of cease-fire negotiations in coming months.

But the messaging also could reinforce Mr. Putin’s assertions that the Ukraine war is really about the future of Russia, which sees neighboring Ukraine’s pro-Western bent as a direct threat. And by casting the American goal as a weakened Russia, the administration has more explicitly stated its determination to contain the Russian leader’s power.

Mr. Zelensky has grown bolder recently, saying that Western nations are now providing the heavy weaponry he has been seeking. He has, though, also been forthright in assessing the dire military situation for Ukrainian troops who are surrounded inside a steel factory in Mariupol, the southeast port city besieged by Russia that has become a symbol of the war’s devastation.

Sasha, 33, a Ukrainian soldier, embracing his wife, Anya, 29, on Monday after seeing her for the first time since Feb. 24, in Zaporizhzhia, Ukraine. Anya and their four children fled the Russian-occupied village of Tokmak.Credit…Lynsey Addario for The New York Times

Speaking at a news conference on Saturday, Mr. Zelensky said the Ukrainian army has at times ceded territory in the fighting in the country’s east but also recaptured areas.

Russia-Ukraine War: Key Developments

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A bolder American stance. Speaking after a high-stakes visit to Kyiv, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III said that the United States wanted Russia to be “weakened” and unable to rebuild its military from its many losses in Ukraine, reflecting an increasingly emboldened approach from the Biden administration.

On the ground. ​​Russia rained down a barrage of missiles on five railway stations across Ukraine, hours after Mr. Austin and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken made a trip by train to the Ukrainian capital. The strikes were part of a broader assault aimed at crippling critical infrastructure in Ukraine.

Diplomatic changes. President Biden nominated Bridget Brink, the current U.S. ambassador to Slovakia, as ambassador to Ukraine, which would fill a position that has remained empty for more than a year. The move comes as Mr. Blinken said that U.S. diplomats will begin returning to the country next week.

“This is the situation in the eastern regions every day,” he said. “We can give a piece of territory, but during the nighttime, we bring it back.”

The Ukrainian Army, he said, had already demonstrated an ability to repel Russian forces. “I’d like to give you the example of Kyiv,” he said. “We freed the territory, we de-occupied the territory.”

Mr. Zelensky spoke firmly of achieving a victory in the east, too, saying it was vital for Ukraine’s future. “Everything they try to break, we will bring it back,” he said.

The NATO alliance has said it would not commit troops to fight Russia, which could further escalate what already is the worst armed conflict in Europe since World War II. NATO also has rejected pleas by Mr. Zelensky to impose a no-fly zone over his country, which is not a NATO member.

Ukrainian soldiers at a position in the Saltivka neighborhood of Kharkiv on Monday.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

But Mr. Zelensky’s leadership, and the successful use of NATO-supplied weapons by his armed forces against the Russians, have increasingly strengthened his stature in the West, where he is viewed as a gutsy protagonist standing up to the bullying of Mr. Putin.

The Russian president, who has shown contempt for Mr. Zelensky, appears to have ruled out any direct contact with him for now. But Mr. Putin has agreed to see the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres, who was scheduled to meet him on Tuesday in Moscow before heading to Kyiv to see Mr. Zelensky. The visits are the most active diplomatic effort to halt the war by Mr. Guterres, whose pleas for a cease-fire have basically been ignored so far.

Political analysts said Mr. Zelensky’s defiance of Mr. Putin was likely to remain an acute source of irritation to the Russian leader, whose decision to go to war has not only isolated Russia economically but also given him few tangible victories to show his own people.

“Even if there’s a frozen conflict that comes after a degree of Russian ‘success’ in this second phase of the war, Zelensky emerges from the fighting a global hero, a David who stared down Russia’s Goliath, running a country that Putin considers illegitimate,” said Ian Bremmer, president and founder of the Eurasia Group, a political-risk consulting organization. Mr. Zelensky’s presence, Mr. Bremmer said, “is a direct threat to Putin, making the Russian president look weak.”

Marc Santora reported from Krakow, Poland, John Ismay from Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and Rick Gladstone from New York. Reporting was contributed by Andrew E. Kramer from Kyiv, Ukraine; Jane Arraf from Lviv, Ukraine; Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Natalia Yermak from Kharkiv, Ukraine; Ivan Nechepurenko from Tblisi, Georgia; Cora Engelbrecht from Krakow; David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt from Washington; and Richard Pérez-Peña from New York.

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