The U.S. secretaries of state and defence met Sunday night with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the highest-level visit to the war-torn country’s capital by an American delegation since the start of Russia’s invasion.
The meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and U.S. Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin was confirmed by Ukraine’s presidential adviser Oleksiy Arestovych in an interview on Ukrainian TV.
It came as Ukraine pressed the West for more powerful weapons against Russia’s campaign in the Donbas region of eastern Ukraine, where Moscow’s forces sought to dislodge the last Ukrainian troops in the battered port of Mariupol.
“Yes, they’re meeting with the president. Let’s hope something will be decided on further help,” Arestovych said in an interview on Ukrainian TV.
Before the session, Zelensky said he was looking for the Americans to produce results, both in arms and security guarantees.
“You can’t come to us empty-handed today, and we are expecting not just presents or some kind of cakes, we are expecting specific things and specific weapons,” he said.
The meeting came as the Ukrainian military said Russian forces continued to press their attacks in the east on Orthodox Easter Sunday.
The General Staff of the Ukrainian armed forces said Sunday that the Russians fired on Ukrainian positions along the entire line of contact on the war’s 60th day.
It also said the Russian military intensified its offensive and assault operations in the Siverodonetsk, Kurakhiv and Popasna directions.
The General Staff added that Russian forces have also continued to pummel the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, hitting it with air strikes, including by long-range aircraft.
The shelling comes as the Russians are pressing their offensive in a bid to gain full control over Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, which is partly held by Moscow-backed separatists.
The Russian military says it has struck a Ukrainian explosives factory, several artillery depots and hundreds of other targets.
Russian Defense Ministry spokesperson Maj.-Gen. Igor Konashenkov said Sunday that the Russian military used precision-guided missiles to destroy a factory making powder and explosives near Pavlohrad in the Dnipro region in central Ukraine — at least one person was killed by a Russian missile in Dnipro, according its regional governor.
Konashenkov also said Russian forces also struck several depots with artillery munitions and rockets in Barvinkove, Nova Dmytrivka, Ivanivka, Husarivka and Velyka Komyshuvakha in the Kharkiv region.
He added that the Russian artillery hit 423 Ukrainian targets overnight, including fortified positions and troops concentrations, while Russian warplanes destroyed 26 Ukrainian military targets.
Calls for Mariupol evacuations
A Ukrainian presidential adviser has urged Russia to allow civilians to leave a steel mill in Mariupol besieged by the Russian forces.
Mykhailo Podolyak, another adviser to Zelensky, appealed to Russia to announce a truce in Mariupol on Orthodox Easter Sunday and immediately open a humanitarian corridor for civilians holed up at the giant Azovstal steel plant.
He also challenged Russia to conduct a round of talks to negotiate an exit for the Ukrainian defenders of the plant.
Podolyak tweeted that the Russian military is attacking the plant with heavy bombs and artillery barrage and is accumulating forces and equipment for an assault.
Sviatoslav Palamar, an officer with the Azov Regiment defending the plant, said in a video that on Eastern Sunday the Russians are continuing to shower the plant with bombs and shell it with heavy artillery.
Located in the Donbas, Mariupol’s fall would hand Russia its biggest military victory of the war and give it full control of a land corridor from the Donbas to Crimea, a southern region it seized from Ukraine in 2014.
Easter calls for peace
Zelensky spoke of hope and victory for his nation during an Easter Sunday address.
Speaking from the ancient St. Sophia cathedral, he said that “the great holiday today gives us great hope and unwavering faith that light will overcome darkness, good will overcome evil, life will overcome death, and therefore Ukraine will surely win!”
He said that “the Lord and the holy heavenly light are on our side,” adding: “We are going through very difficult ordeals. Let us reach a just end on this path — the beginning of a happy life and prosperity of Ukraine.”
Zelensky said that “on Easter, we ask God for great grace to make our dream come true — this is another great day — the day when great peace will come to Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, religious leaders are calling for peace.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians, on Saturday called for the opening of humanitarian corridors in Ukraine, saying a “human tragedy” was unfolding in the country.
“Let us ask the Risen Redeemer that this year, (Easter) will be the impetus to open humanitarian corridors, safe passages to truly safe areas for the thousands of people surrounded in Mariupol, civilians, among them the wounded, the elderly, women and many children,” Bartholomew during midnight mass in Istanbul. “The same applies to all other regions of Ukraine, where an indescribable human tragedy is unfolding.”
Pope Francis renewed his call for an Easter truce.
Without naming countries, Francis urged aggressors to “stop the attack to help the suffering of the exhausted people.”
Francis told a crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square that two months had passed since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and said that “instead of stopping, the war got worse. It is sad that in these days that are the holiest and most solemn for all Christians, the deadly clamour of arms is louder than the sound of bells announcing the Resurrection.”