Apparent Russian strike on market kills 16 as Blinken makes surprise Ukraine visit

Apparent Russian strike on market kills 16 as Blinken makes surprise Ukraine visit

A suspected Russian ballistic missile strike on an outdoor market in eastern Ukraine Wednesday killed at least 16 people just as U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Kyiv on an unannounced visit to project American solidarity with the Ukrainian war effort.

The deadliest attack in months, with nearly three dozen more civilians — including a child — reported wounded, provided a grim backdrop for Mr. Blinken‘s trip, a sign of support for the government of President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in the wake of a top-level personnel shakeup.

Mr. Blinken was expected to formally announce another $1 billion in U.S. military aid to Ukraine at a crucial moment in the war, aides told The Associated Press, as Ukrainian forces push ahead with their counteroffensive and finally show some signs of progress at breaking through Russia‘s heavily fortified defenses in the Donbas region.

But Wednesday also brought a grim reminder of the death and destruction that Russia is still more than capable of wreaking in the theater. The deadly missile attack on the outdoor market in the city of Kostiantynivka, in Ukraine‘s Donetsk region, also damaged or destroyed at least 20 shops in what Ukrainian leaders cast as another indiscriminate attack by Russian troops who routinely show no regard for innocent life.

“A regular market. Shops. A pharmacy. People who did nothing wrong,” Mr. Zelenskyy said in a social media post Wednesday, adding later that it was a “deliberate” strike against innocent civilians. 

The Ukrainian president said there are no military units stationed in the area.

Such attacks on seemingly non-military targets have grown more common in recent weeks. On Sunday, for example, Russia launched the latest in a string of attacks against port facilities in Ukraine‘s Odesa region, a central hub for grain and other vital food exports. Moscow said the attack targeted fuel storage facilities used by the Ukrainian military, but Kyiv said the assault was aimed at provoking a food crisis by destroying agricultural infrastructure.

Against that backdrop, Mr. Blinken was holding a series of meetings with top Ukrainian officials during the visit, his third trip to Kyiv since the start of the war in February 2022. Mr. Blinken is expected to meet with Mr. Zelenskyy later Wednesday.

He met Wednesday morning with Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal and pledged continuing U.S. support for the war effort.

“I’m here in large part at the behest of President Biden to reaffirm our commitment to stand with you, to stand with you to help ensure that you succeed militarily in dealing with the aggression, but also to stand with you to make sure that your efforts to build a strong economy and a strong democracy succeed,” he said, “Because all of those things — a military that’s capable of deterring and defending against further aggression, but also a strong democracy and a strong economy — are the difference between a Ukraine that survives, which it will, and a Ukraine that thrives, which it must and can.” 

On the day of Mr. Blinken‘s arrival, the Ukrainian parliament was formally endorsing the nomination of Rustem Umerov, the head of the government’s main privatization agency, as the new defense minister, replacing Oleksii Reznikov after he resigned under pressure earlier this week.

“Our main objective is victory,” Mr. Umerov said on Facebook after the vote. “I will do everything possible and impossible for Ukraine‘s victory — when we liberate every centimeter of our country.”

The Kremlin cast Mr. Blinken‘s visit as the latest sign that Washington is only fueling the conflict that is now in its 18th month.

“We have repeatedly heard statements that they intend to continue ‘helping’ Kiev as long as it takes. In other words, they will continue to support Ukraine, which is actually in a state of war, and fight this war to the last Ukrainian, sparing no expense. This is how we see it,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Wednesday. 

The expected $1 billion in U.S. aid will add to the already historic financial investments American taxpayers have made in Ukraine. The Biden administration already has provided well over $41 billion in aid since the start of the war.

There have been rising grumbles from some conservative Republicans in Congress about the rising tab for the Ukraine war, but the Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday said the war still enjoys bipartisan support in light of Russia‘s invasion more than 18 months ago.

“President Biden has not been as decisive as many of us would like,” the Kentucky Republican said in remarks on the Senate floor. “But this is no excuse for Congress to compound his administration’s failures with failures of our own. Now — with NATO unified and Europe awakened from its defense holiday and starting to spend real money on our collective defense — is not the time to go wobbly.”