U.S. Officials Reported to Make Top-Secret Visit to Ukraine

KYIV, Ukraine — Two top American officials, in a trip shrouded in secrecy, made a wartime journey to Kyiv on Sunday, where President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine planned to urge them to provide more aid in his nation’s battle against Russian invaders, a top Ukrainian official said.

The U.S. government had been at extraordinary pains to to keep everything about the trip by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III under wraps until the men were safely out of Ukraine, declining even to confirm that it was taking place.

But it was an open secret.

A day earlier, Mr. Zelensky disclosed plans for the highest-level U.S. delegation to visit Ukraine since Russia invaded two months ago. In an interview broadcast on Sunday, as the U.S. government remained silent, an adviser to Mr. Zelensky, Oleksiy Arestovych, said on Ukrainian television that the men were there.

“They’re right now in Kyiv, talking to the president,” Mr. Arestovich said. “Maybe something will be decided regarding how they can help.”

Less secret was the agenda of the meeting: Ukraine’s plea for more military aid from Western allies as it tries to fend off an attack that has crushed cities and left thousands dead. One Ukrainian lawmaker said it sent “a powerful signal to Russia that Ukraine will not be left alone with this war.”

President Volodymyr Zelensky announced the visit by the U.S. officials at a news conference on Saturday.Credit…David Guttenfelder for The New York Times

Already, Congress has approved $13.6 billion in emergency spending related to the invasion, including for weapons, military supplies and one of the largest infusions of U.S. foreign aid to any country in the last decade. The funds also cover the deployment of U.S. troops to Europe. Days before the Americans’ visit, President Biden announced an additional $800 million in military aid, including equipment designed to help Ukraine fend off Russia’s offensive in the east.

But top-level U.S. officials had not visited the country since it was invaded, even as European leaders went to witness firsthand evidence of atrocities committed by Russian soldiers in the suburbs of Kyiv.

As Ukrainians celebrated Orthodox Easter, the head of Ukraine’s independent Orthodox church, Metropolitan Epiphaniy, met in Kyiv on Sunday with two visiting U.S. Congress members, Tim Walberg of Michigan and Victoria Spartz of Indiana, both Republicans.

“Now, we are celebrating Easter, which is about Christ rising,” the metropolitan said. “We are sure that with his victory, we will have victory too.

But denouncing the Russians, he also endorsed the righteous use of force in self-defense.

“In this difficult fight,” he said, “spirit is not enough. You also need weapons.”

Damage from a Russian bombardment in Kharkiv on Sunday.Credit…Tyler Hicks/The New York Times

On Sunday, that fight was raging in Mariupol, the eastern port city were Russia redoubled its assault after withdrawing its forces from the capital region, where they had encountered fierce resistance. A steel plant there where Ukrainian forces have been holding out has come under ferocious attack, but it remains under Ukrainian control — at least, for now.

“We are prepared to leave the city because there is nothing left to defend,” a commander of one of the Ukrainian units said by phone from inside the plant Sunday. “We consider that we’ve fulfilled our mission.”

Given Russia’s new focus on seizing eastern Ukraine, a region filled with wide-open expanses of flatland, Ukrainian forces need more long-range weapons and the ability to quickly move troops on the ground and in the air, military analysts say.

With long-range artillery cannons, helicopters, armored vehicles, tanks, radar defense systems and deadly drones now flowing into the country, Ukrainian leaders have said they have the opportunity not only to defend their land but also to drive the Russians out.

Mr. Blinken was the last high-ranking U.S. official to visit Ukraine when he stopped there in mid-January. The United States closed its embassy in Kyiv on Feb. 14 and its diplomats soon left the country.

Russia’s invasion began 10 days later, and as it tried to seize the capital in an initial offensive, parts of Kyiv were struck by shelling and Ukrainian and Russian forces fought in the streets of Kyiv’s suburbs. But Russia’s retreat from the area around Kyiv appears to have made the city far less dangerous than it was a few weeks ago, and Western leaders have been taking the opportunity to demonstrate solidarity with Mr. Zelensky.

It was Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s first trip to Kyiv since January, when he met with Mr. Zelensky before Russia invaded.Credit…Pool photo by Alex Brandon

It remained unclear on Sunday exactly how Mr. Austin and Mr. Blinken got to Kyiv, where Mr. Zelensky has remained since Russia invaded the country.

The distance makes air travel the obvious choice, but the Ukrainian government closed its airspace to civilian flights when the invasion began.

Other leaders who visited, including Prime Minister Boris Johnson of Britain, went by rail. But given the security concerns, his trip, too, was shrouded in secrecy. Rumors about an impending trip by Mr. Johnson had circulated for days, but no news of the journey itself became public until he was seen in Kyiv.

In March, Vice President Kamala Harris traveled to Poland, where she expressed American support for Ukraine and U.S. allies in NATO and the European Union. Mr. Blinken previously went as far as Poland’s border with Ukraine, meeting with Ukrainian diplomats at a crossing used by hundreds of refugees over the course of an hour.

Mr. Biden also visited a town near the border on a state visit to Poland on March 25, but did not cross into Ukraine. He met with refugees and gave a speech in Warsaw the next day.

President Biden visiting Poland in March.Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

Previous visits by senior American officials to other war zones, such as Iraq and Afghanistan, were typically not announced until after the official had arrived in the country — and sometimes not even until after they had left.

The White House has ruled out sending Mr. Biden to Ukraine, citing not only the risk but Mr. Biden’s enormous security requirements. Senior cabinet officials such as Mr. Blinken and Mr. Austin travel with smaller entourages.

On Sunday, as Ukrainians gathered for muted celebrations of Easter, Russia’s offensive claimed more lives.

Before dawn, two young girls, aged 5 and 14, were killed when their home in the Donetsk region, near the eastern border with Russia, was destroyed, according to the Donetsk Regional Military Administration.

Nearly 100 miles to the west, three Russian missiles slammed into the city of Pavlograd. The strikes damaged railway infrastructure and eight buildings and also killed a 48-year-old man, according to local authorities.

In the eastern region of Luhansk, at least eight people were killed when seven houses and a police station were struck by Russian artillery fire, according to Ukrainian authorities.

Ambulance workers in the Donetsk region helping move a Ukrainian soldier injured by Russian shelling on Saturday.Credit…Evgeniy Maloletka/Associated Press

The statements from state and local officials offered only a partial accounting of the growing toll as fighting along the 300-mile front line in eastern and southern Ukraine intensifies. The heavy fighting has so far resulted in only small gains for Russian forces, but the situation for civilians caught in the crossfire grows more dire by the day.

The fighting once again hindered evacuation efforts.

Igor Zhovkva, an adviser to President Zelensky, told NBC’s “Meet the Press” that, despite claims from Russia that it had taken control of the port city of Mariupol, Ukrainian forces and civilians remained in the city. Many soldiers were wounded, he said.

“Today, we turn to Russian authorities to open the humanitarian corridors for civilians,” he said.

With the city in ruins, an estimated 120,000 people are surviving in what witnesses have described as barbaric conditions. Ukrainian officials said Sunday that Russian forces were continuing to bombard the sprawling steel factory where hundreds of Ukrainian soldiers and civilians are trapped.

Ukrainian forces are willing to leave the factory and evacuate the city if given guarantees of safe passage for themselves and hundreds of civilians, said Captain Palamar, the deputy commander of the Azov Battalion, whose fighters have been holed up at the plant since March 1.

“We will continue to defend it until there is an order to retreat from our military leadership,” he said. “And if we are going to leave, we are going to leave with our weapons.”

Andrew E. Kramer reported from Kyiv, and Natalie Kitroeff from Mexico City. Reporting was contributed by Marc Santora and Jane Arraf from Lviv, Ukraine; Michael Schwirtz from Mariupol; Matthew Mpoke Bigg from London; and Eduardo Medina from New York.

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