Blinken presses Russia to pull troops on solidarity trip to Ukraine

a man standing on a rock: A Ukrainian serviceman walks in a trench on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near the town of Krasnogorivka in the Donetsk region on April 23, 2021 © Anatolii STEPANOV A Ukrainian serviceman walks in a trench on the frontline with Russia-backed separatists near the town of Krasnogorivka in the Donetsk region on April 23, 2021

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday pressed Russia to pull troops and end its "aggressive" actions in Ukraine on a visit to Kiev in which he vowed to expand US support.

The top US diplomat met Ukraine's leadership and toured a somber memorial with photographs of some of the more than 13,000 people who have died fighting pro-Russian separatists since 2014, when Moscow seized the Crimean peninsula from Kiev.

"We stand strongly with you," Blinken told a joint news conference with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. 

"We look to Russia to cease reckless and aggressive actions," Blinken said.

Russia last month amassed 100,000 troops near the border and in Crimea, its biggest buildup since 2014, but quickly announced a pullback in what many saw as a test for the new US administration of President Joe Biden.

But both Blinken and Zelensky said Thursday that the pullout had been limited.

"We're aware that Russia has withdrawn some forces from the border with Ukraine, but we also see that significant forces remain there," Blinken said.

Zelensky said Ukraine still saw Russia flexing its muscle on the Black Sea and said it had only removed 3,000 to 3,500 troops from Crimea.

But Zelensky said that there had been a decline in sniper fire, which has been a leading cause of casualties.

Zelensky welcomed US support but said that Ukraine "desperately" needed more.

"We think that the decrease (of Russian troops near the border) is slow, therefore, perhaps, there still may be a threat. Nobody wants these surprises," Zelensky said.

The United States has earmarked $408 million in security aid for Ukraine this fiscal year and Blinken said he spoke in depth with Ukrainian leaders about their needs.

a group of people standing in front of a military uniform: Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky visits army outposts in the Kherson region, on the administrative border with Russia-annexed Crimea, on April 27, 2021 © Handout Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky visits army outposts in the Kherson region, on the administrative border with Russia-annexed Crimea, on April 27, 2021

- Turning page on Trump -

Biden in his first three months in office has sought to toughen US resolve against Russia after his predecessor Donald Trump's flirtation with President Vladimir Putin.

Trump was notoriously fixated on conspiracy theories about Ukraine, triggering his first impeachment after he held up aid in an unsuccessful bid to pressure Zelensky to dig up dirt on Biden.

Tony Blinken wearing a suit and tie: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the US "reaffirms" its commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence during his meeting with Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, in a visible show of support following a massive troop buildup by Russia. © Andriy PERUN US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says the US "reaffirms" its commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence during his meeting with Ukraine's Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba, in a visible show of support following a massive troop buildup by Russia.

Likely believing that the new US leadership presents greater opportunities after Trump kept him at arm's length, the Ukrainian comedian-turned-president said that he had invited Biden to visit Ukraine. 

Blinken replied that he would convey the invitation and that Biden hoped to visit eventually.

Biden also has proposed a summit with Putin in a bid to bring stability to the relationship -- making it all the more pressing to show solidarity with Ukraine first.

Blinken arrived late Thursday from London where he joined other foreign ministers from the Group of Seven wealthy democracies in condemning Russia's "irresponsible and destabilising behaviour" in Ukraine and elsewhere.

Zelensky has renewed calls to speed up Ukraine's entry into the NATO alliance in the face of fears about Russia.

Western European nations, mindful of Russia's response, have opposed Ukraine's accession and the idea has met a cool response in Washington.

- Pressure on corruption -

Despite vows to support Ukraine, the Biden administration has also pressed Kiev on good governance -- long a major concern for Western partners.

a group of people standing in front of a military uniform: Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky visits army outposts in the Kherson region, on the administrative border with Russia-annexed Crimea, on April 27, 2021 © Handout Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky visits army outposts in the Kherson region, on the administrative border with Russia-annexed Crimea, on April 27, 2021

Ahead of Blinken's trip, the State Department criticised Ukraine for removing the head of state energy company Naftogaz, Andriy Kobolev, who had reduced Ukraine's dependence on Russian gas deliveries and introduced reforms that improved the company's public image.

Tony Blinken in a suit standing in front of a curtain: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Ukraine's leadership on a solidarity trip to Kiev © Efrem Lukatsky US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Ukraine's leadership on a solidarity trip to Kiev

Blinken said the Biden administration would support "the vital work that Ukraine is undertaking to advance reforms, to tackle corruption, to implement a stronger foreign agenda based on our shared democratic values."

Blinken presses Russia to pull troops on solidarity trip to Ukraine