KYIV, Feb 20 (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden walked around central Kyiv on an unannounced visit on Monday, promising to stand with Ukraine as long as it takes, on a trip timed to upstage the Kremlin ahead of the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion.
Biden, in trademark aviator sunglasses, and President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in green battle fatigues, walked side-by-side to a gold-domed cathedral on a bright winter morning pierced by the sound of air raid sirens.
“When (Russian President Vladimir) Putin launched his invasion nearly one year ago, he thought Ukraine was weak and the West was divided. He thought he could outlast us. But he was dead wrong,” Biden said.
“The cost that Ukraine has had to pay is extraordinarily high. Sacrifices have been far too great … We know that there will be difficult days and weeks and years ahead.”
Outside the cathedral, burnt-out Russian tanks stand as a symbol of Moscow’s failed assault on the capital at the outset of its invasion, which began on Feb. 24. Its forces swiftly reached Kyiv’s ramparts only to be turned back by unexpectedly fierce resistance.
Since then, Russia’s invasion has killed tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers on both sides, cities have been reduced to rubble and millions of refugees have fled. Russia says it has annexed nearly a fifth of Ukraine, while the West has pledged tens of billions of dollars in military aid to Kyiv.
The U.S. president promised a further $500 million worth of weaponry, including artillery ammunition, anti-armour systems and air defence radars, plus tighter sanctions on Russia.
“This visit of the U.S. president to Ukraine, the first for 15 years, is the most important visit in the entire history of Ukraine-U.S. relations,” Zelenskiy said.
Foreign Minister Dmitro Kuleba called the visit a signal to Russia that “no one is afraid of you!”
Russia was notified before Biden’s departure, officials in Washington and Moscow said, apparently to avoid the risk of an attack on Kyiv while he was there.
The trip took place a day before Putin was due to make a major address on Tuesday, setting out aims for the second year of what he now calls a proxy war against the armed might of Washington and the transatlantic military alliance NATO.
“Of course for the Kremlin this will be seen as further proof that the United States has bet on Russia’s strategic defeat in the war and that the war itself has turned irrevocably into a war between Russia and the West,” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a Russian political analyst.
The anniversary has taken on more than symbolic significance, becoming what the West views as the principal motivation for the war’s deadliest phase, with Moscow hurling thousands of conscripts and mercenaries into a winter offensive.
Russia has secured only scant gains so far in assaults in frozen trenches up and down the eastern front in recent weeks. Kyiv and the West see it as a push to give Putin victories to tout a year after he launched Europe’s biggest war since World War Two.
Moscow received its own signal of diplomatic support on Monday, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi expected for talks. In public, China has remained neutral over the conflict despite signing a “no limits” friendship pact with Russia weeks before the invasion.
Washington has said in recent days it is concerned Beijing could begin supplying Moscow with arms. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said the United States was “in no position to make demands of China”.
A diplomatic source who spoke on condition of anonymity told Reuters that Wang would discuss Chinese ideas for a political settlement of the war. Ukraine says any diplomatic solution requires the withdrawal of Russian forces from its territory.
Russia is trying to secure full control of two eastern provinces forming Ukraine’s Donbas industrial region. It has launched assaults at locations running from Kreminna in the north down to Vuhledar in the south, securing its biggest gains around the mining city of Bakhmut.
Kyiv, which is absorbing a major influx of Western weaponry in the coming months for a planned counter-offensive, has lately stuck mainly to defence on the battlefield, claiming to be inflicting huge casualties on the assaulting Russian forces.
‘EATING OFF GOLDEN PLATES’
Britain’s Ministry of Defence said among Russia’s casualties were two elite brigades of thousands of marines probably rendered “combat ineffective” by losses sustained in failed attempts to storm Vuhledar.
“The Russian forces are likely under increasing political pressure as the anniversary of the invasion draws near,” it said, predicting Moscow may claim to have captured Bakhmut regardless of the situation on the ground. “If Russia’s spring offensive fails to achieve anything, then tensions within the Russian leadership will likely increase.”
In a sign of such dissent, Yevgeny Prigozhin, a Putin ally whose Wagner private army has sent thousands of criminals recruited from prison into battle around Bakhmut, accused unidentified officials of sabotaging his force by withholding weapons.
“Those who interfere with us trying to win this war are absolutely, directly working for the enemy,” he said, raising his voice and occasionally swearing in a 7 minute audio message. Such officials were “eating breakfast, lunch and dinner off golden plates” and sending relatives on holiday to Dubai, he added.
Western governments say Moscow has lost thousands of men and scores of armoured vehicles trying to storm Vuhledar across fields scattered with landmines in sight of Ukrainian artillery.
Inside Vuhledar, constant explosions shook the ruins. A pensioner emerged from the cellar where she lives with her dog, and showed a Reuters journalist around the rubble of her flat above, where a shell had blasted through the wall.
She said she had been saved when the room was hit because a fridge had fallen on top of her. A neighbour’s daughter found her and dragged her out.
“Scary is not the word. It is terrifying,” she said.
Reporting by Reuters reporters worldwide; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Frank Jack Daniel and Alison Williams
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