Blinken in Ukraine in show of support against Russia

Kiev (AFP) –


US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Ukraine's leadership Thursday in a visible show of support following a massive troop buildup by Russia even as he also pushes for action against corruption.

The one-day visit is the first to Kiev by a senior US official under President Joe Biden, who has vowed a firmer line on Russia but is also preparing for a summit with his counterpart Vladimir Putin.

Blinken arrived late Thursday from London where he joined other foreign ministers from the Group of Seven wealthy democracies in condemning Russia's "irresponsible and destabilising behaviour" in Ukraine and elsewhere.

The G7 renewed its call "for Ukraine's independence, sovereignty and territorial integrity within its internationally recognised borders including its territorial waters."

"It is critical that Moscow now fully withdraws its forces and takes the necessary steps to help alleviate tensions," a G7 statement said.

Russia last month amassed 100,000 troops on Ukraine's borders, the biggest mobilisation since Moscow seized the majority-Russian peninsula of Crimea in 2014 and war broke out in eastern Ukraine.

Clashes in eastern Ukraine between the government and pro-Russian separatists have been intensifying since January, a bloody new phase in Europe's only ongoing military conflict which has claimed more than 13,000 lives.

Russia quickly announced a pullback after the latest buildup, leading some experts to believe Putin was testing the will of Biden while seeking to intensify pressure on Ukraine.

Blinken will meet with President Volodymyr Zelensky, who has renewed calls to speed up Ukraine's entry into the NATO alliance in the face of fears about Russia.

Western European nations, mindful of Russia's response, have opposed Ukraine's accession and the idea has met a cool response in Washington.

The United States has, however, earmarked $408 million in security aid for Ukraine this fiscal year.

Blinken will also join Metropolitan Yepifaniy -- head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which has split from Russian domination -- in laying flowers at a memorial to soldiers killed in the eastern Donbas region

- Turning page from Trump -

With Biden in the White House, Ukraine will likely enjoy a more sympathetic ear than with his predecessor Donald Trump who was notoriously fixated on conspiracy theories about the country.

Trump held up aid to Ukraine to press Zelensky to dig up dirt on Biden, leading to the former president's first impeachment.

The scandal returned to the headlines just before Blinken's trip as US investigators raided the home of Trump's former lawyer, New York's ex-mayor Rudy Giuliani, who had aggressively pressed unfounded allegations of impropriety in Ukraine by Biden's son Hunter.

Blinken is sure to seek to turn the page on Trump's scandals but the Biden administration has also pressed Ukraine on good governance -- long a major concern for Western partners.

Ahead of Blinken's trip, the State Department criticised Ukraine for removing the head of state energy company Naftogaz, saying the shake-up showed "disregard for fair and transparent corporate governance practices".

Andriy Kobolev had reduced Ukraine's dependence on Russian gas deliveries and introduced reforms that improved the company's public image.

The US must show Kiev that Kobolev's dismissal has consequences, the independent Ukrainian news website Yevropeiska Pravda said in an editorial this week.

It said his removal negated "one of the few successful reforms" carried out in Ukraine and would put to rest hopes in Kiev that Biden might visit the country later this year.

Kostyantyn Yeliseev, a former ambassador to the EU who founded the New Solutions Сenter think tank, said that Blinken could lay the foundations for a visit by Zelensky to the White House, where he was shunned under Trump.

Blinken's visit is "a very good signal of support for Ukraine", Yeliseev said.