© Reuters. A general view shows an apartment building damaged by a Russian military strike, amid Russia’s attack on Ukraine, in the frontline city of Bakhmut in Donetsk region, Ukraine February 19, 2023. REUTERS/Yevhen Titov
By Pavel Polityuk and Max Hunder
KYIV (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden made an unannounced visit to Kyiv 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 aviator sunglasses, strode side-by-side with President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, in green battle fatigues, through central Kyiv to a gold-domed cathedral, on a bright winter morning pierced by air raid sirens.
“When 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 had been placed as a symbol of Moscow’s failed assault on the capital at the outset of its invasion, when its forces swiftly reached the city’s ramparts only to be turned back by unexpectedly fierce resistance.
Since then, tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians and soldiers on both sides have died, cities have been reduced to rubble and millions of refugees have fled. Russia claims to have annexed nearly a fifth of Ukraine, while the West has committed 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 “victory of the Ukrainian people and president Zelenskiy” and a clear signal to “the swamp” – Russia – that “no one is afraid of you!”
It was clearly timed to upstage Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, 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 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.
“Tomorrow’s address was expected to be very hawkish, targeted at a demonstrative rupture of relations with the West. Now additional edits could be introduced to make it even tougher.”
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 apparent signal of diplomatic support on Monday, with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi expected in the Russian capital for talks. In public, China has so far 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”, and China’s “comprehensive collaborative partnership with Russia” was a matter for two independent states.
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 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.
“We are breaking down the invaders and inflicting extraordinarily significant losses on Russia,” Zelenskiy said in his nightly video address. “The more losses Russia suffers there, in Donbas – in Bakhmut, Vuhledar, Marinka, Kreminna – the faster we will be able to end this war with Ukraine’s victory.”
Britain’s Ministry of Defence also said Russia was suffering major casualties, including two elite brigades of thousands of marines probably rendered “combat ineffective” in failed attempts to storm Vuhledar, a heavily fortified Ukrainian bastion.
“The Russian forces are likely under increasing political pressure as the anniversary of the invasion draws near,” it said, predicting Moscow could 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.”
The failed Russian assaults on Vuhledar, where Ukrainian forces are guarding the junction of the eastern and southern fronts, have led to recriminations among Russian pro-war bloggers. Western governments say Moscow has lost thousands of men and scores of armoured vehicles trying to storm it across fields scattered with landmines in sight of Ukrainian artillery.
Inside Vuhledar, the constant sound of 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.