By Ivan Lyubysh-Kirdey
KYIV, Sept 6 (Reuters) – Ukraine has made important progress in its counteroffensive against Russia’s invasion, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on Wednesday during a visit overshadowed by a Russian attack that killed at least 17 people.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy condemned the attack, which hit a crowded market in the eastern front-line town of Kostiantynivka, which is close to the devastated city of Bakhmut. He said a child was among the dead, and officials said at least 32 people were hurt.
“This Russian evil must be defeated as soon as possible,” Zelenskiy said, describing it as a deliberate attack on a “peaceful city”. Aides posted video footage showing an explosion after what sounded like a missile approaching, and people scurrying for cover or falling to the ground.
Russia did not immediately comment on the attack, and has denied deliberately targeting civilians in its more than 18-month-old invasion, which has shattered towns and cities and killed thousands of civilians.
Blinken, the first top U.S. official to visit Kyiv since the counteroffensive began in early June, announced a new package of U.S. wartime assistance worth more than $1 billion, including support for Ukraine’s air defences.
“In the ongoing counteroffensive, progress has accelerated in the past few weeks. This new assistance will help sustain it and build further momentum,” Blinken told reporters at a news conference with Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.
Blinken earlier described the progress as important and “very, very encouraging”.
U.S. media reports have cited unidentified U.S. officials as saying the Ukrainian counteroffensive has been too slow and hindered by poor tactics – criticism that angered Ukrainian officials and prompted Kuleba to tell critics to “shut up”.
Ukraine has retaken more than a dozen villages and small settlements in its offensive. But its push into Russian-held territory has been slowed by minefields and trenches.
U.S. officials have not publicly criticised Ukraine’s military tactics, and last week said they had seen progress in the southeast.
The new U.S. aid would include HIMARS missile launch systems, Javelin antitank weapons, Abrams tanks and other weapons systems, White House press secretary Larine Jean-Pierre said. The Pentagon said it would also send depleted uranium ammunition.
Asked about Blinken’s visit, Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peso said Moscow believed Washington planned to continue funding Ukraine’s military “to wage this war to the last Ukrainian”.
He said U.S. aid to Kyiv would not affect the course of what he called Russia’s special military operation.
Ukraine’s Kuleba said he and Blinken had discussed the U.S. providing ATACMS long-range missiles and he hoped for a positive decision, adding that arming Ukraine was protecting the world from Moscow’s aggression.
The European Union condemned the Russian attack on the market in Kostiantynivka – which took place on the second day of Blinken’s visit to Kyiv – calling it “heinous and barbaric” and said those behind it would be held to account.
When the shells hit, pharmacy employee Diana Khodak saw a flash and shouted to colleagues to lie on the floor. “I heard things falling over, then everything was covered in smoke and fire started,” she said.
Two injured women were brought to the pharmacy, one carried by a soldier. She had a bone protruding from an open leg fracture. “She was very pale. She remained conscious but in shock while she was given first aid,” Khodak told Reuters.
Blinken’s visit coincided with Ukraine’s parliament approving the appointment of Rust Umerov as defence minister following the dismissal of Oleksii Reznikov. Officials did not say whether Blinken would meet Umerov.
During his train ride to Kyiv, Blinken held talks with Danish Prime Minister Mettle Fredericks, who was visiting the same day.
Blinken thanked Fredericks for Denmark’s donation of F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine and its leadership of a coalition of nations to train Ukrainian pilots, a State Department spokesperson said.
Denmark and the Netherlands announced last month they would supply more than 60 U.S.-made F-16s as soon as pilots are trained to fly them – the first countries to offer the jets.
The U.S. government has provided more than $43 billion in weaponry and other military aid to Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February 2022.
Several Republican presidential hopefuls have questioned U.S. aid, fuelling concerns over whether Washington will maintain its support for Ukraine once the U.S. 2024 election campaign intensifies.
(Additional reporting and writing by Humeyra Pamuk in Washington, Tom Balmforth in Kyiv, Ron Popeski and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Timothy Heritage, Angus MacSwan, Peter Graff and Cynthia Osterman)