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Blinken visits Kyiv, Ukraine northern offensive makes gains

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a surprise visit to Kyiv to announce more American military support as Ukraine's offensive near Kharkiv makes advances.

(CN) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made an unannounced visit to Kyiv on Thursday, a symbolic show of support for Ukraine that came on the same day that the White House pledged about $675 million more in military aid for the besieged country.

Blinken's visit coincided with reports of significant Ukrainian advances in its offensive southeast of Kharkiv, the second-largest city. But by Thursday, Russian military sources claimed that Ukraine's charge had been halted. Combat though remained fierce in this direction.

Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin and General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with European allies at the U.S. Ramstein Air Force Base in Germany to discuss how to help Ukraine beat back Russia's invasion.

On Thursday, the White House said it has approved $675 million more in military support for Kyiv and that it will ask Congress to approve another $2.2 billion in military aid for Ukraine and 18 other countries deemed at risk of Russian invasion. With this new package of support, the U.S. will have spent about $15.2 billion on arms for Ukraine.

“Ukraine’s extraordinary front-line defenders continue to courageously fight for their country’s freedom, and President Biden has been clear we will support the people of Ukraine for as long as it takes,” Blinken said in a statement. “I reiterated this message to President Zelenskyy and his team today in Kyiv, which remains — and will remain — the capital of a sovereign, independent Ukraine.”

This week, Ukraine went on the offensive first in the south and then in areas southeast of Kharkiv, a city located in the northeast part of the country. Ukraine's top officials have largely been reluctant to talk about the assaults, but on Wednesday Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said there was “good news” coming from the front lines near Kharkiv.

“Probably, you all have already seen reports about the activity of Ukrainian defenders,” Zelenskyy said in a video message. “I think every citizen feels proud of our warriors. It is a well-deserved pride, a right feeling.”  

He said it was too early to talk about which settlements have been recaptured, but he thanked individual brigades “for their bravery and heroism shown during combat missions.”  

Blinken told Zelenskyy that the war had reached a "pivotal moment."

"We know this is a pivotal moment, more than six months into Russia’s war of aggression against Ukraine, as your counteroffensive is now under way and proving effective," Blinken said, according to an Associated Press report.

"We are grateful for the signal, for this enormous support that you’re providing on a day-to-day basis," Zelenskyy replied.

Both sides have claimed inflicting heavy losses on the enemy. Ukraine said it had killed about 640 Russian soldiers in the past day, bringing the total number of slain enemy troops to more than 51,000.

New videos have appeared showing captured Russian soldiers, Ukrainian tanks advancing through woods and Ukrainian forces entering settlements that were under Russian control. In one video, Ukrainian soldiers take down a red Soviet flag from a flagpole.

Russia's defense ministry has been quiet about events in Kharkiv, but Russian military sources reported that Ukraine's initial large-scale offensive was successful in several directions, advancing 15 or more miles. But by Thursday, Russian sources claimed that reserves were brought in and had stabilized the front.

The fiercest battles took place over a small city called Balakliya, about 40 miles southeast of Kharkiv. Battles also were reported over a settlement called Shevchenkove, which lies about 20 miles northeast of Balakliya. It remained unclear whether Russian forces were still in control of Shevchenkove.

By Thursday, Russian troops were reportedly holding onto Balakliya, a railway junction that, more importantly, is situated en route to the strategically key city of Izium.

Fighting for control of Izium raged for weeks in March before Russia seized the city. Izium had a population of about 45,000 before the war. The city also saw fierce fighting between Ukrainian troops and pro-Russian separatists in 2014.  

Russian warplanes were reportedly being used heavily to attack Ukraine’s advances, but they face an extensive anti-aircraft defense system in the Kharkiv region.  

Meanwhile, Ukraine’s attempts to mount an offensive in the south apparently are on pause. On Monday, Ukraine launched its army across the flatlands near Kherson, a city on the Black Sea that fell under Russian control early in the invasion. While Ukraine made limited gains toward Kherson, it reportedly suffered heavy losses. The offensive in Kharkiv is taking place in more wooded and hilly terrain. 

In his video message, Zelenskyy hinted at the southern offensive’s losses and said it was paramount for Ukraine to attack the Russian forces at different points along the front lines.  

“Each success of our military in one direction or another changes the general situation along the entire front line in favor of Ukraine,” Zelenskyy said. “The more difficult it is for the occupiers, the more losses they have, the better the positions of our defenders in Donbas will be, the more reliable the defense of Zaporizhzhia, Mykolaiv and the cities of the Dnipropetrovsk region will be, the faster we will be able to liberate the Azov region and the entire south.” 

At the start of the invasion, about 7% of Ukraine was under the control of Russia and its Ukrainian allies. Now, about 20% of Ukraine is under Russian control.  

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Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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