© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Service members of pro-Russian troops, including fighters of the Chechen special forces unit, stand in front of the destroyed administration building of Azovstal Iron and Steel Works during Ukraine-Russia conflict in the southern port city of
By Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets
KYIV (Reuters) – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin will visit Kyiv on Sunday to discuss Ukraine’s call for more powerful weapons, two months after the Russian invasion began.
The visit, announced by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Saturday, would be the highest-level by US officials since Russian tanks rolled into Ukraine on Feb. 24.
The White House has not confirmed any visit by Blinken and Austin. The State Department and Pentagon declined to comment.
As Christians in Ukraine celebrated Orthodox Easter on Sunday, there was no end in sight to a war that has killed thousands, uprooted millions and reduced cities to rubble.
“Usually we would come to our churches with Easter baskets. But now this is impossible,” Serhiy Gaidai, governor of Ukraine’s eastern Luhansk region, wrote on Telegram. “Seven churches in Luhansk region have been mutilated by Russian artillery.”
Reuters could not independently verify his report.
“We are all convinced that we will not be destroyed by any horde or wickedness,” Zelenskiy said in an Easter video message from the 1,000-year-old Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv, praying God would “give endurance to those who, unfortunately, would not see the return of their child from the front.”
Moscow, which describes its actions in Ukraine as a “special military operation”, denies targeting civilians and rejects what Ukraine says is evidence of atrocities, saying Kyiv staged them.
Zelenskiy told a news conference in an underground metro station on Saturday that talks with the US visitors would cover an “exact list of weapons” needed and the pace of supplies.
“We would like to have … powerful heavy weapons,” he said. “As soon as there are enough of them, believe me, we will immediately retake this or that territory, which is temporarily occupied.”
Ukraine said on Saturday that Russia had resumed its assault on Ukrainian defenders making a last stand in a giant steel works in Mariupol, just days after Moscow declared victory in the key southern port city and said its forces did not need to take the plant.
Fighting in Mariupol, the biggest battle of the conflict, has raged for weeks. Capturing the city would help Russia create a land link between pro-Russian separatists who control parts of the eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk that make up the Donbas with the southern Black Sea peninsula of Crimea, which Moscow seized in 2014.
Ukraine estimates tens of thousands of civilians have been killed in Mariupol and says 100,000 civilians are still in the city. The United Nations and Red Cross say the civilian toll is at least in the thousands.
Oleksiy Arestovych, a political adviser to Zelenskiy, said troops in the Mariupol steel complex were holding out and attempting counterattacks. More than 1,000 civilians are also in the plant, according to Ukrainian authorities.
A new attempt to evacuate civilians failed on Saturday, an aide to Mariupol’s mayor said.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual head of Eastern Orthodox Christians worldwide, called for the opening of humanitarian corridors in Mariupol and other areas of Ukraine, where he said “an indescribable human tragedy is unfolding”.
Ukraine’s military said Russian forces were continuing their offensive in the east of the country on Sunday to try to establish full control over Donetsk and Luhansk. It said Russian forces were attacking both military and civilian infrastructure.
Ukrainian forces said they repulsed 12 attacks on Donetsk and Luhansk on Saturday, destroying four tanks, 15 units of armoured equipment and five artillery systems.
Reuters could not independently confirm these and other military reports.
Ukraine’s military said Russian forces were partially blockading the northeastern city of Kharkiv, and had moved Iskander-M missile launchers some 60 km (40 miles) from the Ukrainian border. The Iskander-M system fires short-range ballistic missiles that can hit targets up to 500 km away.
British military intelligence said Ukrainian resistance had been strong, especially in Donbas, despite some Russian gains.
“Poor Russian morale and limited time to reconstitute, re-equip and reorganise forces from prior offensives are likely to hindering Russian combat effectiveness,” it said in a regular bulletin.
Russia’s defence ministry said it used high-precision missiles on Saturday to destroy a logistics terminal in the southern city of Odesa containing weapons supplied by the United States and European states. The last big strike on or near Odesa was in early April.
Zelenskiy said eight people, including a 3-month-old child, were killed in Saturday’s Odesa strike. He also said Russia had fired most of its missile arsenal at Ukraine.
“Of course, they still have missiles left,” he said. “But what they have already done is a powerful enough argument for the world to finally recognise Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism and the Russian army as a terrorist organisation.”