US seeks to ‘weaken’ Russia as it pledges more military help for Ukraine

Senior U.S. officials visited Kyiv for the first time since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began in February and said they have a new mission: a “weakened” Russian military that can’t attack its neighbors.

Heading to Poland on Monday, the day after a visit to Kyiv, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin told reporters that “we want to see Ukraine remain a sovereign country, a democratic country able to protect its sovereign territory, we want to see Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do things like invade Ukraine.”

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Austin pledged more military help to Ukraine and a return of U.S. diplomats to Kyiv this week, during a secrecy-shrouded visit on Orthodox Easter, a holy day in Ukraine.

As the Russian invasion enters its third month, Western allies have been rushing to provide heavy weaponry, with the U.S., France and Canada sending artillery, and the U.K. considering a deal with Warsaw to send tanks. The war Russian President Vladimir Putin launched on February 24 is turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy, as NATO reinforces its presence on the eastern flank, and countries like Sweden and Finland, previously nonaligned, weigh joining the military alliance.

The high-level stop from U.S. officials in Kyiv comes after a flurry of Western leaders visited the country, including the European Parliament President Roberta Metsola, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and EU top diplomat Josep Borrell, followed shortly by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. The Polish, Czech and Slovenian prime ministers were the first to head to Ukraine after the invasion started. European Council President Charles Michel also paid a visit last Wednesday.

In a readout of the meeting, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “thanked” U.S. President Joe Biden “personally,” as he welcomed the American pledge. “We share the same understanding with the United States: When democracy wins in one country, it wins all over the world. When freedom is defended in one country, it is defended all over the world,” Zelenskyy wrote on Telegram on Monday.

The U.S. State Department’s spokesperson Ned Price confirmed that U.S. diplomats will head back to Ukraine this week, with the U.S. announcing the nomination of a new ambassador, Bridget Brink, who currently serves as the U.S. ambassador to Slovakia.

After Ukraine and Poland, Austin will head to Germany on Tuesday for a meeting of allied defense ministers to discuss Kyiv’s longer-term security needs.

David M. Herszenhorn contributed reporting.

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