By Max Hunder and Tom Balmforth
KYIV (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin arrived in Kyiv on Monday for an unannounced visit and expressed American support “for the long haul” as questions swirled over the sustainability of vital Western assistance, with Russia’s invasion dragging on.
Austin, accompanied by the head of the U.S. military’s European Command, was photographed smiling and shaking hands with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. It marked Austin’s first visit to Kyiv since April 2022.
“The message that I bring you today, Mr. President, is that the United States of America is with you. We will remain with you for the long haul,” Austin told Zelenskiy after an overnight train ride into Ukraine from Poland.
U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Bridget Brink said the visit signalled Washington’s “unwavering support to Ukraine in its fight for freedom”.
Zelenskiy told Austin that his visit was “a very important signal” for Ukraine.
“We count on your support,” Zelenskiy told Austin.
The trip comes amid increasing division over aid for Ukraine in the U.S. Congress, with a U.S. presidential election coming in November next year. Some American lawmakers are prioritising aid to Israel even as U.S. defense officials stress that Washington can support both allies simultaneously.
Privately, some top Ukrainian officials have voiced concern that deliveries of military aid may become less frequent, reflecting broader unease over the levels of support needed to sustain the war against Russia, which invaded in February 2022. Ukraine’s budget for next year has a deficit of more than $40 billion which needs to be filled.
STOP-GAP SPENDING BILL
President Joe Biden had asked Congress to approve more money last month. Its omission from a stop-gap spending bill passed by lawmakers last week raised concerns that funding for Ukraine might never be appropriated, especially after the Republican-led House of Representatives passed a bill including assistance for Israel but not Ukraine.
A vocal bloc of Republicans oppose sending more aid to Ukraine. Opponents of the aid have said U.S. taxpayer money should be spent at home, but a majority of Republicans and Democrats in Congress still support aid to Zelenskiy’s government.
A joint Ukraine-U.S. military industry conference in Washington, due to take place on Dec. 6 and 7, is intended to boost Ukraine’s domestic arms production as its fight against a full-scale Russian invasion nears the two-year mark.
Earlier in the day, Austin spoke with Defense Department personnel at the U.S. embassy.
“When you think back at the beginning of this, nobody thought that Ukraine could survive for more than a week. So here we are much later,” Austin said.
“Now, everybody’s wondering why Ukraine hadn’t overpowered Russia, which is a much bigger country with a lot more capability. But just think about that shift in mindset,” Austin added.
Russia now controls nearly a fifth of Ukraine. The West sent in military equipment and Ukraine mounted a counteroffensive push this year to retake occupied land, but it has not made a big breakthrough.
Zelenskiy on Sunday demanded rapid changes in the operations of Ukraine’s military medical system, as he announced the dismissal of the commander of the medical forces.
Zelenskiy’s move was announced as he met Defence Minister Rustem Umerov, and coincided with debate over the conduct of the 20-month-old war, with questions over how quickly the counteroffensive in the east and south is proceeding.
(Reporting by Max Hunder and Tom Balmforth in Kyiv and Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali in Washington; Editing by Bernadette Baum and Alex Richardson)