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Blinken reaffirms U.S. support on trip to Ukraine

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Ukraine, announcing another $1 billion in U.S. aid. He's reassuring Ukrainians that there will be U.S. support for the long run. Here he is speaking at a news conference with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: Just as we have stood with you to ensure your nation's survival over these past 20 months, so we will stand with you as you determine your future and rebuild a free, a resilient, a thriving Ukraine.

SHAPIRO: Before Blinken arrived, Russia launched cruise missiles at Kyiv, most of which were shot down. Another Russian strike later in the day killed at least 16 civilians in a shopping district in a town near the front lines. NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with Blinken and joins us from Kyiv. Hey, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Ari.

SHAPIRO: What's it like there in the capital city?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, the last time I was here with Blinken was early last year, and that was just before the war. Now you see, you know, sandbags in front of all the government buildings. There were those air raid sirens that you mentioned going off early this morning. That was before we got here. And, of course, the trip is a bit tougher. You can't fly, so it's this overnight train.

But Blinken has done this three times now since the war began. He says he's impressed by how resilient the Ukrainian people are. And, in fact, Ari, Foreign Minister Kuleba took him to a McDonald's tonight which had been closed for many months last year. He says he asked for Blinken's help in getting it reopened, and he said it was a big deal when it did. Take a listen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DMYTRO KULEBA: People working here are happy. People working for McDonald's are happy. Everyone is happy. So it's like a big Happy national Meal.

KELEMEN: A big Happy national Meal. And by the way, they didn't order Happy Meals. Ukraine's top diplomat had a cherry pie, and Blinken had some fries.

SHAPIRO: Very American dinner there in Ukraine. Why is Blinken making this visit now? What's he trying to accomplish?

KELEMEN: Well, you know, September is this important month on the diplomatic calendar. One State Department official joked it's kind of back-to-school time for diplomats, too. The U.N. General Assembly is later this month, and President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is expected to attend. So U.S. officials say Blinken wanted to get a sense from him about, you know, how this counteroffensive is going and what kind of support he needs on the diplomatic front as Zelenskyy tries to get more countries on board for how Ukraine wants to see this war to end - that is, with the U.N. Charter intact, with Ukraine's territorial integrity intact.

SHAPIRO: What is Blinken's assessment of how this Ukrainian counteroffensive is going?

KELEMEN: Well, he spent a couple of hours with Zelenskyy talking about this. He says he's heartened by some of the recent progress, but it's really been a tough slog. The U.S. is pitching in more money now. He talked about $1 billion. Part of it's for things like demining. That's a huge task right now. There's also more equipment for the front-line effort, and the U.S. is trying to look to the future to offer Ukraine some sort of security guarantees that are longer term. Blinken says that's a conversation that's really just starting. But his mantra this week seems to be that the U.S. wants to make sure that Ukraine doesn't just survive but that it thrives. We've heard him use that phrase quite a bit today.

SHAPIRO: Although as he talks about the long-term, resistance in American political circles, especially among Republicans, seems to be growing. Is that of concern to the administration?

KELEMEN: It is for sure. I mean, U.S. officials keep talking about how this isn't just about Ukraine. It's about the international rules of the road, the U.N. Charter, not letting Russian President Vladimir Putin get away with this aggression. And the Ukrainian foreign minister repeated that and said he thinks that Republicans and Democrats do understand that this isn't just about Ukraine but how the world should look.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Michele Kelemen in Kyiv, thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.