KRAKOW, Poland — The United States toughened its message on the war in Ukraine on Monday, saying the American goal was not just to thwart the Russian invasion, but also to weaken Russia so that it cannot no longer carry out such military aggression anywhere.
The goal has been stated in explicit terms by the highest delegation in the Biden administration to visit Ukraine since the start of the war. This reflected an emboldened intention to counter Russia by giving more and more powerful weapons to the Ukrainians, who fought Russian forces with unexpected tenacity, sapped Kremlin resources and clouded President Vladimir V. Putin’s hope of a quick win.
The American delegation also announced that the United States would reopen its embassy in the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv – another signal aimed at painting Russia as heading towards defeat. The embassy, closed on the eve of the February 24 invasion, will be headed by a newly appointed ambassador.
The U.S. visit itself, led over the weekend by Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, ended early Monday and posed a risky challenge for Russia. , which has sought to subjugate Ukraine by force for more than two months. Russia demanded that the United States and its NATO allies stop supplying advanced weapons to the Ukrainian military.
Although the trip was supposed to be secret, leaks occurred and Russia rained rockets on at least five Ukrainian train stations hours after the visitors finished their talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv and then turned themselves in by train in Poland, which can take 11 hours. It is unclear if they were in Ukraine during some of these attacks or if Russia targeted them.
Ukraine’s railways and other infrastructure are important for getting Western-supplied weapons and aid to combat zones in the former Soviet republic, which Mr Putin said he does not see as a real country.
Speaking in Poland after the trip, Mr Austin said Russia had suffered heavy military losses so far, including “a large number of its troops”. He said the Pentagon was working to ensure that Russia could not “reproduce that capability very quickly.”
Mr. Austin and Mr. Blinken planned to hold detailed discussions about the support Ukraine needed to prevail at a meeting with allies on Tuesday in Germany.
“We want to see Russia weakened to the point where it can’t do the kinds of things it did by invading Ukraine,” Austin said.
The United States agreed to supply not only advanced American-made weapons to Ukraine, but also newly manufactured ammunition for Soviet-designed weapons, as Ukrainian forces still use many weapons from that era. On Monday, the State Department said the United States was giving Ukraine $165 million in artillery shells, rockets and grenades compatible with Soviet-designed weapons.
Mr Blinken, who said Russia had already been thwarted in its aim to destroy the Ukrainian state, told reporters he expected the US embassy in Kyiv to reopen within weeks. The administration named Bridget Brink, the current US ambassador to Slovakia, as the new envoy to Ukraine.
“Russia is failing,” Blinken said. “Ukraine succeeds.”
There was every sign on Monday that Russia saw the visit as a provocation to escalate the conflict. In addition to rocket attacks on Ukraine’s railways, Russian attacks in the east knocked out power to the entire Lugansk province, leaving tens of thousands of people without power, local government officials said.
Elsewhere, an Orthodox Easter lull was broken in the northeast city of Kharkiv, where Russia resumed bombardment and widened the devastation. And on the other side of the country, explosions rocked Transnistria, a breakaway region of Moldova aligned with Russia and bordering Ukraine. Hundreds of Russian troops are deployed in Transnistria and Ukrainian defense officials have accused Russia of causing the explosions as a pretext to invade Ukraine from that direction.
Other developments on Monday indicated further escalation. Russia said it was expelling 40 German diplomats in response to Germany’s expulsion of Russians. And in Bryansk, a Russian military logistics hub less than 100 miles from the Ukrainian border, large fires of mysterious origins have engulfed oil storage depots.
Russia’s initial goal of conquering Ukraine by besieging the capital and bombarding other major cities was hampered by faulty logistics, poor soldier morale, and fierce resistance that forced a Russian retreat. In a new phase of the war, the Russians are focusing their attacks on securing eastern Ukraine, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting since 2014.
Several Biden administration officials said the messages from Messrs. Austin and Blinken were partly aimed at giving Mr. Zelensky the strongest possible hand in what they expect will be some sort of ceasefire negotiations in the coming months.
But the message could also bolster Mr Putin’s claims that the war in Ukraine is really about the future of Russia, which sees neighboring Ukraine’s pro-Western leaning as a direct threat. And by presenting the American goal as a weakened Russia, the administration more explicitly affirmed its determination to contain the power of the Russian leader.
Mr Zelensky has become bolder recently, saying Western countries are now supplying the heavy weapons he is looking for. He was, however, also candid in assessing the dire military situation of Ukrainian troops who are surrounded inside a steel plant in Mariupol, the southeastern port city besieged by Russia that has become a symbol of the devastation of the war.
Speaking at a press conference on Saturday, Mr Zelensky said the Ukrainian army had sometimes ceded territory during the fighting in the east of the country, but had also taken over areas.
“This is the situation in the eastern regions every day,” he said. “We can give a piece of territory, but at night, we bring it back.”
The Ukrainian military, he said, had already demonstrated its ability to repel Russian forces. “I would like to give you the example of kyiv,” he said. “We liberated the territory, we cleared the territory.”
Mr Zelensky also spoke strongly about a victory in the East, saying it was vital for Ukraine’s future. “Anything they try to break, we’ll bring it back,” he said.
The NATO alliance has said it will not commit troops to fight Russia, which could further escalate what is already Europe’s worst armed conflict since World War II. NATO also rejected Mr Zelensky’s demands to impose a no-fly zone over his country, which is not a NATO member.
But Mr. Zelensky’s leadership and the successful use of NATO-supplied weapons by his armed forces against the Russians have increasingly cemented his stature in the West, where he is seen as a bold protagonist resisting the intimidation of Mr. Putin.
The Russian president, who despised Mr. Zelensky, seems to have ruled out any direct contact with him for the time being. But Mr Putin has agreed to see UN Secretary-General António Guterres, who was due to meet him in Moscow on Tuesday before traveling to kyiv to see Mr Zelensky. The visits constitute the most active diplomatic effort to end the war by Mr. Guterres, whose calls for a ceasefire have been virtually ignored so far.
Political analysts said Mr. Zelensky’s defiance of Mr. Putin would likely remain an acute source of irritation for the Russian leader, whose decision to go to war has not only isolated Russia economically, but also gave him few tangible victories to show his own people.
“Even though there is a frozen conflict that comes after some Russian ‘success’ in this second phase of the war, Zelensky emerges from the fighting as a global hero, a David who stared down the Russian Goliath, leading a country that Putin considers illegitimate,” mentioned Ian Bremer, Chairman and Founder of Eurasia Group, a political risk advisory organization. Mr. Zelensky’s presence, Mr. Bremmer said, “is a direct threat to Putin, giving the impression that the Russian president is weak.”
Marc Santora reported from Krakow, Poland, Jean Ismay Ramstein Air Base, Germany, and Rick Gladstone from New York. The report was provided by Andrew E. Kramer from Kyiv, Ukraine; Jane Arraf from Lviv, Ukraine; Thomas Gibbons-Neff and Natalia Yermak from Kharkov, Ukraine; Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia; Cora Engelbrecht from Krakow; David E. Sanger and Eric Schmitt from Washington; and Richard Perez-Pena from New York.