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Blinken and Austin's trip to Kyiv demonstrates the U.S. supports Ukraine

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The U.S. is making plans to send its diplomats back to Ukraine. Secretary of State Antony Blinken made the announcement after a visit to Kyiv, where he and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin met with Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The Cabinet officials also pledged more cash and more weapons to Ukraine. Speaking in Poland this morning, Secretary Blinken voiced confidence in Ukraine's military.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: Russia is failing. Ukraine is succeeding. Russia has sought, as its principal aim, to totally subjugate Ukraine, to take away its sovereignty, to take away its independence. That has failed.

MARTIN: NPR's Brian Mann is in Odesa in the south of Ukraine, where we reached him earlier today.

What more can you tell us about what came out of this visit?

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Well, I think the first big message here was that the U.S. plans to stick by Ukraine. Along with all the money and firepower promised, this was really a symbolic gesture, this visit to high-level U.S. officials in Ukraine's capital just weeks after the Russian army tried to capture Kyiv. Austin and Blinken did promise to boost military aid to Eastern Europe by another $700 million, including money to help countries in the region support Ukraine with guns and ammunition and the heavy weaponry that Ukrainian officials say they desperately need. Secretary Austin said those big guns from the U.S. are already arriving.

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LLOYD AUSTIN: We are doing everything that we can to get them the types of support, the types of artillery and munitions that will be effective in this stage of the fight.

MANN: The Biden administration did also announce today, after a long delay, that they've nominated an ambassador to Ukraine, an experienced foreign service officer named Bridget Brink. She's now serving as ambassador to Slovakia. And the U.S. is going to gradually reestablish its permanent diplomatic presence in Ukraine, eventually even reopening the U.S. embassy in Kyiv.

MARTIN: Although we should say that's a slower pace than several European allies, which have already sent their ambassadors back to Kyiv or have plans to do so. So, Brian, as we noted, you're in Odesa. This is the main port city in the south of the country, and it's been pretty quiet there for the duration of the war. There were, though, these missile strikes over the weekend that killed eight people. Can you tell us what happened?

MANN: Yeah, this was really the latest wrenching moment in Russia's assault, Rachel. A missile struck an apartment building here. A young mother and a 3-month-old child were among the dead. Odesa had felt relatively safe, as you mentioned. And this was a shock coming on the Orthodox Easter weekend. Now some people are choosing to leave. I spoke last night with Ira Volkova (ph), who was getting on an evacuation train to leave Odesa with her two young children.

IRA VOLKOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: "We felt these explosions threaten us, and I'm afraid for the kids," she told me. And Volkova's situation gets at what so many Ukrainians are experiencing right now.

VOLKOVA: (Speaking Ukrainian).

MANN: She told me her husband is away fighting in the war. She doesn't know where he is. Her father was wounded fighting the Russians and is now in a hospital, and her brother is one of the defenders of the devastated city of Mariupol. We haven't heard anything about him for a month, Ira told me. We hope for the best.

MARTIN: So this is happening in the south where Odesa is. Russians are obviously pushing very hard in the east as well. Is there any evidence at this point, Brian, that they are tipping the balance?

MANN: The Russian military says they're hitting hundreds of Ukrainian military targets, and this is shaping up to be a slow, bloody grind but no big breakthroughs. The Ukrainian military actually claims to have retaken some territory and villages here in the south where I am around Kherson. NPR could not confirm that. Also, it does appear some of those Ukrainian soldiers dug in at the steel plant, Mariupol, are still alive. I will say, though, Rachel, the Ukrainians I talk to on the street here are really hopeful. They think their army has bought them time so that those bigger weapons can arrive and be deployed.

MARTIN: NPR's Brian Mann reporting from Odesa, Ukraine. Thank you, Brian.

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

Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.