On Russia, Europe Weighs Competing Goals: Peace and Punishment

BRUSSELS — Losing ground to Russia’s brutal advance in the east, Ukraine on Monday demanded an arsenal of sophisticated Western weapons many times greater than what has been promised, or even discussed, underscoring the rising pressure on Western leaders to reconsider their approach to the war.

The tactics that served the Ukrainians well early in the war have not been nearly as effective as the fighting has shifted to the open ground of the Donbas region in the east, where Russians are relying on their immense advantage in long-range artillery. Russian forces are poised to take the blasted city of Sievierodonetsk, the easternmost Ukrainian outpost, and are closing in on the neighboring city of Lysychansk.

With the leaders of France, Germany and Italy planning their first visit to Ukraine’s capital, Kyiv, since the war began, they and other Western leaders have to decide whether to double down on arming Ukraine or press harder for negotiations with Moscow to end the war.

running out of ammunition for their Soviet-era artillery, and Ukrainian officials contend that Russian artillery in the east is out-firing their own, 10 to 1.

Mykhailo Podolyak, the Zelensky adviser, said Ukraine needs 300 mobile multiple rocket-launch systems, 1,000 howitzers, 500 tanks, 2,000 armored vehicles and 1,000 drones to achieve parity with Russia in the Donbas region where fighting is concentrated — numbers many times beyond anything that has been publicly discussed in the West. The United States has promised four of the mobile rocket launchers and Britain a few more; Washington has sent a little more than 100 howitzers, and other nations a few dozen more.

faster than Ukrainians can be trained to use them — but Mr. Podolyak, Mr. Zelensky and others clearly mean to keep up the pressure on the West, complaining daily that the current arms flow is woefully inadequate.

mposed tough economic sanctions on Russia, supplied significant financial and military aid to Ukraine, and insisted publicly that it is up to Ukraine’s own, democratically elected leaders to decide how and when to negotiate with Russia.

But they also worry that a long war will bring in NATO countries and even cause President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia to escalate what has been a brutal but conventional campaign. President Emmanuel Macron of France, in particular, has twice said it was important not to “humiliate Russia.”

European officials also worry about the damage being done to their own economies by inflation and high energy prices, and about the likely domestic political backlash. And many in Europe are eager to find a way, even if it’s a temporary cease-fire, to resume Ukrainian grain exports as global food prices soar and parts of the world face a threat of famine.

Such talk raises hackles in Kyiv and in the capitals of Central and Eastern Europe where Russia is most feared, and officials questioned how committed their friends to the west are to beating back Mr. Putin’s aggression. Leaders of several countries that were once part of the Soviet bloc believe this war is about more than Ukraine, and that the Kremlin’s ambitions to re-establish that sphere of influence and overthrow the European security order must be met with defeat, not a cease-fire.

matériel, but fear it could soon be surrounded, trapping a large number of Ukrainian troops.

Mr. Michta wrote for Politico.

“For the first time in the modern era,” he wrote, “it would force Moscow to come to terms with what it takes, economically and politically, to become a ‘normal’ nation-state.”

Reporting was contributed by Andrew E. Kramer and Valerie Hopkins from Kyiv, and Thomas Gibbons-Neff from Lysychansk, Ukraine.

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Struggling in Ukraine’s East, Russian Forces Strike in Kyiv

KYIV, Ukraine — Russian forces pressed hard on Sunday to take the town of Sievierodonetsk, one of the last obstacles to seizing the region of Luhansk. But as so often in this grinding war of attrition, the Russian Army is finding the going difficult, with Ukrainian forces making counterattacks and seizing back some of the town.

President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine, who said he visited frontline troops near Sievierodonetsk on Sunday, said that fighting was being waged street by street and that the situation was “extremely difficult.” The city is largely in ruins, and thousands of civilians are still sheltering in basements there.

Capturing Sievierodonetsk would deliver the Luhansk region to Russian forces and their local separatist allies, who also control much of neighboring Donetsk. But their inability to take ground quickly and their persistent vulnerability to determined Ukrainian fighters again show that the Russian war plan has not gone according to Moscow’s expectations.

Even as it struggled in the east, Moscow offered a reminder Sunday that it retains the power to lash out in much of Ukraine, hitting Kyiv, the capital, for the first time in more than a month. President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, angered by the impending arrival in Ukraine of long-range missiles from the West, warned that Moscow may hit hitherto unscathed targets.

he threatened “to strike targets we haven’t hit before” if Western countries supply Ukraine with longer-range missiles, but he provided no specifics.

Speaking to the state-run Rossiya TV network, Mr. Putin was asked about the U.S. announcement that it would supply Ukraine with a more sophisticated rocket system that could strike targets some 40 miles away. Even as he warned about new Russian targets, he sought to play down the rocket deliveries, suggesting that Western nations were just replenishing stocks of similar weapons that Ukraine had depleted.

Russia has been irritated by the U.S. decision to supply Ukraine with HIMARS truck-mounted multiple-launch rocket systems, with missiles that have a range of up to 40 miles, greater than anything Ukraine currently possesses. Since the invasion, the Pentagon has provided Ukraine with 108 M777 howitzers. But the range of the HIMARS missiles is more than twice that of the 155-mm shells fired by howitzers.

five missiles hit near the Darnytsia railway station and Pozniaky, a residential neighborhood, wounding one person.

Russia’s Defense Ministry claimed that the missiles had struck a railway repair workshop and destroyed an unspecified number of Soviet-era T-72 tanks delivered by Eastern European nations. Poland and the Czech Republic have sent hundreds of such tanks to Ukraine. Ukrainian officials denied that any tanks had been destroyed.

several powerful explosions early Sunday in the eastern city of Kramatorsk, rattling windows miles away. Kramatorsk, which serves as the provincial capital for Ukrainian-controlled areas of the Donetsk region, has been repeatedly struck by missiles but has escaped the sweeping destruction in other towns. There were no reports of injuries in Sunday’s attack, which hit industrial areas.

in a Twitter message that talk of humiliation was not the point. The real question, he said, is: “How to defeat Russia while offering it a way out? To avoid an everlasting war, the temptation of escalation and the total devastation of Ukraine.”

Tone matters, Mr. Araud wrote in English.

“The word ‘humiliate’ is giving to the debate an emotional and moral tone which is a dead end,” he said. “In foreign policy, at the end of a war, there are a winner and a loser or, which is much likelier in this case, there is a stalemate. A stalemate means an ever-going war or a compromise.”

Helene von Bismarck, a German historian, said that what was most annoying about Mr. Macron’s talk of humiliation “is not just that it sounds callous, after Bucha, but that it is yet another example of discussing the long-term relationship with Russia as if it wasn’t influenced by the short-term development of the war.”

But the strain of the long war was evident even in Estonia, whose prime minister, Kaja Kallas, has been one of the most outspoken voices urging a Russian defeat and Mr. Putin’s isolation.

Ms. Kallas dissolved her coalition government on Saturday, firing seven Centre party ministers from the 15-strong cabinet, including the foreign minister, Eva-Maria Liimets. The dismissal of the Centre ministers followed weeks of political deadlock, including a vote on an education bill in which Centre voted against the government and with a far-right opposition party.

Ms. Kallas, who is seeking to create a new coalition to avoid early elections, cited the need for unity during this war to explain her actions. She said she hoped that the war “would have opened the eyes of all the parliamentary parties to the importance of a common understanding of the threats for us as a country neighboring Russia.”

Valerie Hopkins reported from Kyiv, and Steven Erlanger from Brussels. Reporting was contributed from Andrew E. Kramer from Kramatorsk, Ukraine; Neil MacFarquhar from Istanbul; and Ivan Nechepurenko from Tbilisi, Georgia.

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Ukrainian Minister Has Turned Digital Tools Into Modern Weapons of War

After war began last month, President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine turned to Mykhailo Fedorov, a vice prime minister, for a key role.

Mr. Fedorov, 31, the youngest member of Mr. Zelensky’s cabinet, immediately took charge of a parallel prong of Ukraine’s defense against Russia. He began a campaign to rally support from multinational businesses to sunder Russia from the world economy and to cut off the country from the global internet, taking aim at everything from access to new iPhones and PlayStations to Western Union money transfers and PayPal.

To achieve Russia’s isolation, Mr. Fedorov, a former tech entrepreneur, used a mix of social media, cryptocurrencies and other digital tools. On Twitter and other social media, he pressured Apple, Google, Netflix, Intel, PayPal and others to stop doing business in Russia. He helped form a group of volunteer hackers to wreak havoc on Russian websites and online services. His ministry also set up a cryptocurrency fund that has raised more than $60 million for the Ukrainian military.

The work has made Mr. Fedorov one of Mr. Zelensky’s most visible lieutenants, deploying technology and finance as modern weapons of war. In effect, Mr. Fedorov is creating a new playbook for military conflicts that shows how an outgunned country can use the internet, crypto, digital activism and frequent posts on Twitter to help undercut a foreign aggressor.

McDonald’s have withdrawn from Russia, with the war’s human toll provoking horror and outrage. Economic sanctions by the United States, European Union and others have played a central role in isolating Russia.

Mr. Zelensky was elected in 2019, he appointed Mr. Fedorov, then 28, to be minister of digital transformation, putting him in charge of digitizing Ukrainian social services. Through a government app, people could pay speeding tickets or manage their taxes. Last year, Mr. Fedorov visited Silicon Valley to meet with leaders including Tim Cook, the chief executive of Apple.

Russia invaded Ukraine, Mr. Fedorov immediately pressured tech companies to pull out of Russia. He made the decision with Mr. Zelensky’s backing, he said, and the two men speak every day.

“I think this choice is as black and white as it ever gets,” Mr. Fedorov said. “It is time to take a side, either to take the side of peace or to take the side of terror and murder.”

On Feb. 25, he sent letters to Apple, Google and Netflix, asking them to restrict access to their services in Russia. Less than a week later, Apple stopped selling new iPhones and other products in Russia.

Russia damaged the country’s main telecommunications infrastructure. Two days after contacting Mr. Musk, a shipment of Starlink equipment arrived in Ukraine.

Since then, Mr. Fedorov said he has periodically exchanged text messages with Mr. Musk.

were put on pause following the invasion. Russia, a signatory to the accord, has tried to use final approval of the deal as leverage to soften sanctions imposed because of the war.

But while many companies have halted business in Russia, more could be done, he said. Apple and Google should pull their app stores from Russia and software made by companies like SAP was also being used by scores of Russian businesses, he has noted.

In many instances, the Russian government is cutting itself off from the world, including blocking access to Twitter and Facebook. On Friday, Russian regulators said they would also restrict access to Instagram and called Meta an “extremist” organization.

Some civil society groups have questioned whether Mr. Fedorov’s tactics could have unintended consequences. “Shutdowns can be used in tyranny, not in democracy,” the Internet Protection Society, an internet freedom group in Russia, said in a statement earlier this week. “Any sanctions that disrupt access of Russian people to information only strengthen Putin’s regime.”

Mr. Fedorov said it was the only way to jolt the Russian people into action. He praised the work of Ukraine-supporting hackers who have been coordinating loosely with Ukrainian government to hit Russian targets.

“After cruise missiles started flying over my house and over houses of many other Ukrainians, and also things started exploding, we decided to go into counter attack,” he said.

Mr. Fedorov’s work is an example of Ukraine’s whatever-it-takes attitude against a larger Russian army, said Max Chernikov, a software engineer who is supporting the volunteer group known as the IT Army of Ukraine.

“He acts like every Ukrainian — doing beyond his best,” he said.

Mr. Fedorov, who has a wife and young daughter, said he remained hopeful about the war’s outcome.

“The truth is on our side,” he added. “I’m sure we’re going to win.”

Daisuke Wakabayashi and Mike Isaac contributed reporting.

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Left Out of High-Level Talks, Ukraine Tries Other Diplomatic Channels

KYIV, Ukraine — Peace negotiations are usually thought to involve two sides brought together by a mediator trying to tease out possible compromises, far from the anger and destruction of the battlefield.

But talks starting in Geneva Monday on the eight-year-old war in Ukraine are different. The conflict — and an overtly threatened Russian invasion that the talks are intended to forestall — is in Ukraine. But Ukraine will be missing from two of the three negotiating sessions scheduled for this week.

Such a limited role for Ukraine in the talks has clearly unnerved the government in Kyiv. Fearing the talks will yield little or nothing, and with President Biden’s statement that the United States will not intervene militarily if Russia invades, Ukraine has quietly pursued its own negotiating track with Moscow.

The latest threat of invasion began last month, when Russia massed more than 100,000 troops along its borders with Ukraine and demanded wide-ranging — and, to Western analysts, impossible — concessions from the United States and NATO on matters of European security.

threatened to launch an invasion of Ukraine if the talks on its proposals should fail.

In effect, that made Ukraine “the hostage,” of Russia, said Kostiantyn Yelisieiev, a former Ukrainian ambassador to the European Union.

Dmytro Kuleba, posted on Twitter last week, noting he will also meet with NATO officials in Brussels. “Part of a wide diplomatic effort to deter further Russian aggression.”

The current threat follows eight years of low-level conflict. Russia intervened militarily in Ukraine in 2014, annexing the Crimean Peninsula and fomenting separatist uprisings in two eastern provinces, leading to the deaths of about 13,000 people.

Given the stakes for Ukraine, the government of President Volodymyr Zelensky has decided not to rely wholly on the U.S.-led negotiations. Mr. Zelensky announced a separate, Ukrainian diplomatic initiative with Russia in late December, the specifics of which were later published in the Russian newspaper Kommersant.

implemented.

cause a firestorm in Ukrainian politics.

To date, none of the diplomatic talks with Russia, whether with the United States or Ukraine, have slowed the stream of ominous statements from Russian officials that diplomats and analysts worry could be used to justify military action or prepare the Russian population for a war.

told Izvestia newspaper soon after the fall of Kabul.

In December, Mr. Putin, speaking to a gathering of generals and security officials, said Moscow might resort to “military-technical” means if Western nations “continue the obviously aggressive stance.”

compared Moscow favorably to a gangster character in a Russian movie who, “raising his heavy fist and looking into the eyes of his interlocutor, gently asks again: Where is your strength America?”

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Ukraine Commanders Say a Russian Invasion Would Overwhelm Them

KYIV, Ukraine — On the 30th anniversary of the founding of Ukraine’s armed forces this week, the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, donned a helmet and flak jacket to tour the trenches and announced with great fanfare the delivery of new tanks, armored vehicles and ships to frontline units engaged in fighting Russian forces and Kremlin-backed separatists.

While the weapons systems may help to maintain parity in the slow-moving war of attrition that has prevailed for years, neither they nor anything else the Ukrainian military can now muster would be sufficient to repel the full-on Russian assault that Ukrainian and Western officials say Moscow appears to be preparing. With nearly 100,000 troops now massed across Ukraine’s eastern, northern and southern borders and more on the way, even the Ukrainian officials responsible for their country’s defense acknowledge that without a significant influx of resources, their forces do not stand much of a chance.

“Unfortunately, Ukraine needs to be objective at this stage,” said Gen. Kyrylo O. Budanov, the head of Ukraine’s military intelligence service. “There are not sufficient military resources for repelling a full-scale attack by Russia if it begins without the support of Western forces.”

General Budanov outlined his nightmare vision of a Russian invasion that would begin with airstrikes and rocket attacks aimed initially at ammunition depots and trench-bound troops. Very quickly, he said, the Ukrainian military would be incapacitated, its leadership unable to coordinate a defense and supply the front. After that, he said, responsibility would fall to frontline commanders to carry on the fight alone.

a video call with President Biden on Tuesday, Mr. Putin dismissed concerns about the troop buildup on Ukraine’s border, shifting blame to the United States and NATO, which he accused of threatening Russia’s security by supporting Ukraine’s military with arms and training.

“The Russian troops are on their own territory,” an adviser to Mr. Putin, Yuri V. Ushakov, said in a briefing with reporters after the presidents had spoken. “They don’t threaten anyone.”

Still, the amassing of troops and heavy weaponry on the border has forced Ukrainian officials to face some hard truths in recent weeks. The U.S. intelligence community has assessed that Russia has devised plans for an offensive involving 175,000 troops.

delivered about 88 tons of ammunition, part of a $60 million military aid package pledged by the Biden administration.

On Wednesday, President Biden ruled out deploying U.S. forces to Ukraine to deter Russia. But there are more than 150 U.S. military advisers in Ukraine, a combination of U.S. Special Forces and National Guard, currently the Florida National Guard’s 53rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, according to two U.S. Defense Department officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive troop deployments. About a dozen other NATO countries also have military advisers in Ukraine now, the officials said.

delivering a new cache of missiles in October. John F. Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, said Wednesday that there were no conditions or restrictions placed on the Javelins, except that the Ukrainian forces use them “responsibly” and “in self-defense.”

interview with Radio Liberty this month, Gen. Oleksandr Pavlyuk, the commander of the Joint Operation Forces fighting the separatists, said the Javelins had already been deployed to military units in eastern Ukraine. A senior Ukrainian military official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military issues, confirmed that Javelin missiles had been deployed to frontline military units a month ago, but had not yet been fired in battle.

“The Javelins are there, and if our enemies employ tanks they will be used,” the official said.

The Biden administration has remained vague about how else it might come to Ukraine’s defense in case of invasion.

In his video call with Mr. Putin on Tuesday, President Biden looked his counterpart in the eye and warned the United States would go beyond the economic punishments imposed on Russia after the 2014 seizure of Crimea should Mr. Putin decide to order military action, according to an account by Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser. What those penalties might be were left unclear, though few expect the United States to commit significant military assistance beyond what has already been provided.

The lack of firm commitments from Ukraine’s Western backers are a source of consternation for Ukrainian officials.

“They need to decide, either we’re allies as they declare — and in that case allies help one another — or they need to say that this is not exactly the case,” said General Budanov, the military intelligence chief. “If the civilized world wants to avoid catastrophe — and this will be a catastrophe for everyone — we need military technical support now, not tomorrow, not the day after tomorrow, not in year. Now.”

Those who understand that such a level of support is unlikely have begun to speak darkly of popular armed resistance against any Russian occupation. In an interview, General Pavlyuk noted that Ukraine had up to half a million people with military experience. If the West does not come to Ukraine’s aid, he said, “we’ll start a partisan war.”

“Eight years have passed and there are very many people with military experience who are prepared with weapons in their hands to fight,” he said.

One senior Ukrainian military official who spoke on condition of anonymity said that if all else failed, the military would simply open its weapons depots and allow the Ukrainian people to take whatever they need to defend themselves and their families.

Eric Schmitt contributed reporting from Washington.

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Blinken, in Ukraine, Warns of Dual Threats: Russia and Corruption

KYIV, Ukraine — Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken told Ukraine’s president on Thursday that the United States strongly backed his country’s sovereignty against Russia’s military aggression but also warned that the embattled country was under threat from “internal forces,” including powerful oligarchs who thrive on corruption.

Mr. Blinken also said that, despite Russia’s recently announced plans to withdraw many of the 100,000 troops it had built up along the border with Ukraine in an alarming show of force this spring, a clear military threat remained.

“Russia has pulled back some forces, but significant forces remain on Ukraine’s border,” Mr. Blinken noted. “And so Russia has the capacity on fairly short notice to take aggressive actions if it so chooses.” Mr. Blinken added that the United States was “watching this very, very carefully.”

Mr. Blinken spoke at a joint news conference with the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, who effusively thanked the first senior Biden official to visit Kyiv since the departure of President Donald J. Trump from office. The former president ensnared Mr. Zelensky in a global scandal that the Ukrainian leader clearly hopes to forget.

efforts to drive corruption out of Ukraine’s political system, Mr. Zelensky boasted about his reform record, then indicated that he hopes the matter is finished.

“Let’s not talk about the past,” he said. “Let’s let bygones be bygones, and let’s discuss the future.”

a raid on his apartment and office. Federal agents were reportedly seeking evidence of his role in the May 2019 removal of the American ambassador to Ukraine, allegedly at the behest of Mr. Giuliani’s Ukrainian associates.

Mr. Blinken for his part maneuvered around a question featuring Mr. Giuliani, but reminded Mr. Zelensky — whose reform record has drawn mixed reviews — that “effectively combating corruption is one of the most important issues to the Ukrainian people, and is crucial to improving their lives.”

insurgency in the country’s east. Fighting in the region has claimed more than 13,000 lives, according to the United Nations.

To sustain that conflict, and to weather any new offensive by Russia, Ukrainian officials are eager for more military assistance and potential arms sales from Washington, which currently sends Ukraine more than $400 million in annual military aid. Mr. Blinken said that the Biden administration was “working very actively” on the subject but offered no further details.

But Mr. Blinken underscored his concern about Ukraine’s military plight with a morning visit to an outdoor memorial for soldiers who have died in the conflict in the east. The monument, known as the Wall of National Remembrance, features hundreds of photographs of the fallen that run along an outer wall of St. Michael’s, a 12th-century monastery and church.

In driving rain, Mr. Blinken, accompanied by the senior figure in Ukraine’s Orthodox Church and the country’s foreign minister, knelt to lay flowers at the foot of the wall.

Later, Mr. Blinken told Mr. Zelensky that the pictures of the fallen had touched him personally.

pressured him to announce an investigation into Mr. Biden, then a Democratic contender for president, and Mr. Biden’s son Hunter, who worked for a Ukrainian energy company. Mr. Trump withheld U.S. military aid to Ukraine as he pressed his request. The episode led to Mr. Trump’s first impeachment and a painfully awkward experience for Mr. Zelensky.

During the joint appearance with Mr. Blinken, the Ukrainian leader said he hoped that Mr. Biden himself could visit Ukraine soon. Mr. Blinken cited limits on travel because of the coronavirus but said that the American president “will welcome the opportunity at the right time.”

Mr. Blinken was joined by a longtime ally of the Ukrainians, the State Department’s newly confirmed under secretary for political affairs, Victoria Nuland. A career Foreign Service officer and high-ranking State Department official in the Obama administration, Ms. Nuland left government in early 2017 but was tapped this year to become the department’s No. 3 official.

Ms. Nuland is well remembered in Kyiv — and reviled at the Kremlin — for passing out food in 2013 to protesters in the Ukrainian capital’s Independence Square, known as the Maidan, in the prelude to the overthrow of Viktor F. Yanukovych, the Russian-backed president of Ukraine at the time.

Her presence was clearly appreciated. At the beginning of a morning meeting with Mr. Blinken, the foreign minister, Dmytro Kubela, congratulated Ms. Nuland on her appointment and noted to laughter that one of the few major events on the Maidan that he had missed “was your cookies.”

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U.S. Secretary of State Blinken Visiting Ukraine

LONDON — When Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken arrives in Ukraine early Thursday, he will encounter an all too familiar scene: a country struggling to defend itself from without and reconstruct itself from within.

It is little changed from the days when Mr. Blinken was a White House staffer in the Obama administration — and a warning that solutions might be years away still.

Mr. Blinken is the first senior Biden administration official to visit Kyiv, and his task when he meets with Ukraine’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, will be to reassure him of American support against Russia’s ongoing aggression, which flared last month when Moscow built up more than 100,000 troops along Ukraine’s eastern border.

Russia began withdrawing those forces in late April but still has many of them and all their equipment in place. Moscow also continues to back a pro-Russian insurgency in a war in Ukraine’s east that has killed more than 13,000 people, according to the United Nations.

seeking evidence related to Mr. Giuliani’s role in the removal of the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine in April 2019.

Although that saga is unlikely to be on the official agenda or to affect U.S. policy, it is a vivid reminder of the power of anti-reform figures in the country. Ukrainian associates of Mr. Giuliani pressed Mr. Giuliani to oust the ambassador, Marie L. Yovanovitch, because they viewed her as a threat to their business interests, American diplomats testified during the impeachment hearings in 2019.

Though Mr. Blinken is no stranger to Ukraine, having visited repeatedly during the Obama years, he will be joined by one of the government’s top experts and strongest defenders of the country, Victoria J. Nuland, who last week was confirmed as the State Department’s under secretary for political affairs, its No. 3 position.

As the department’s top official for Europe and Eurasia in the Obama administration, Ms. Nuland became a loathed figure in the Kremlin over her ardent support for Ukraine’s 2014 revolution. Russian officials bitterly recall how Ms. Nuland passed out food to protesters in Kyiv before they toppled Ukraine’s Russian-backed president, Viktor F. Yanukovych.

Ms. Nuland’s visit with Mr. Blinken comes a few weeks before President Biden is likely to meet with Mr. Putin during a trip to Europe. For now, Mr. Taylor said, that meeting in June serves as “a hostage” that may be preventing the Russian leader from sending troops across Ukraine’s border, though analysts remain divided about Mr. Putin’s motives in ordering the buildup. Some believe he may be simply trying to intimidate Mr. Zelensky and put Mr. Biden off balance.

Combat has been taking place within Ukraine for seven years, as government forces battle separatists armed and funded by the Kremlin, and a European-led peace process is deadlocked.

Mr. Biden himself has had extensive experience in Ukraine, having led the Obama administration’s actions there as vice president. On Tuesday, he said his “hope and expectation” was that he will meet with Mr. Putin during his trip to Europe, a meeting at which Ukraine is sure to be a central topic of discussion.

With an eye on Russia’s threats and meddling, Ukrainian officials have said they are eager for more security aid from the Biden administration, but it is far from clear whether that will be forthcoming.

Asked last week whether Mr. Blinken might come bearing such offers, Philip T. Reeker, the State Department’s acting assistant secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs, pointed to $408 million in existing U.S. support, and said only, “I’m sure that will come up in our conversation.” Strong support exists in Congress for increasing that funding, Mr. Taylor noted.

During his visit, Mr. Blinken is expected to try to assess how much confidence to place in Mr. Zelensky, a former comedic actor elected in April 2019 with no political experience.

Just last month, President Volodymyr Zelensky donned a helmet and flak jacket to visit his soldiers in trenches at the front, showing defiance to the Russian military buildup. Praise and warm words of support flowed in from Ukraine’s Western allies.

In a statement, the State Department said Mr. Blinken would “reaffirm unwavering U.S. support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. But he will also encourage continued progress in Ukraine’s institutional reform agenda, particularly anti-corruption action, with is key to securing Ukraine’s democratic institutions, economic prosperity and Euro-Atlantic future.”

In Kyiv, independent analysts have praised the tough-love policy.

“Biden is an opportunity Ukraine can use or lose,” Sergiy Sydorenko, editor of European Pravda, an online news outlet, said in an interview. “By the look of it, Biden really cares for democracy, and having a democratic Ukraine is vital for developments in the wider region, including Russia. But Biden’s support is not guaranteed.”

Anti-corruption efforts in Ukraine have been a mixed bag.

Earlier in his tenure, Mr. Zelensky’s political party and allies passed a law privatizing former collective farmland, a step toward unwinding corruption schemes in agriculture. He also formed an anti-corruption court, and this year, his government sanctioned oligarchs with ties to Russia.

But for Western donor nations that prop up the Ukrainian budget, a critical aspect of Mr. Zelensky’s presidency has been his relationship with an oligarch, Ihor Kolomoisky, whom Ukraine’s own banking regulators accuse of embezzlement. Mr. Kolomoisky denies the allegations.

In March, the Biden administration sanctioned Mr. Kolomoisky and members of his family, and the U.S. authorities have frozen or seized his commercial real estate assets, including an office tower in Cleveland.

Two years ago, a freshly installed Mr. Zelensky was put through the mangle of American politics. A hangover still lingers.

In a phone call in July 2019, while withholding military aid, President Trump asked him for the “favor” of investigating Mr. Biden, a political adversary, and members of his family. Mr. Trump accused Mr. Biden of wrongdoing when he was vice president in the Obama administration.

Untangling this situation became an early headache for Mr. Zelensky in the first months of his presidency.

With seemingly little choice and his country at war and in need of the military assistance, Mr. Zelensky leaned toward helping in the scheme to discredit Mr. Biden. But Mr. Zelensky’s plans to publicly announce the investigation in September in a CNN interview, something that would have sealed his support for Mr. Trump’s position, never came to fruition. By then, a C.I.A. whistle-blower’s warning about the scheme became public and Mr. Zelensky was spared the need to pick a side.

Mr. Zelensky insisted that he had tried to remain neutral throughout, and his aides note that he never publicly endorsed Mr. Trump’s dirt-digging effort.

They say they see no reason for Mr. Biden to hold a grudge.

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Kyiv.

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Alarm in Ukraine as Russian Forces Mass at Border

MARIUPOL, Ukraine — There are the booms that echo again, and parents know to tell their children they are only fireworks. There are the drones the separatists started flying behind the lines at night, dropping land mines. There are the fresh trenches the Ukrainians can see their enemy digging, the increase in sniper fire pinning them inside their own.

But perhaps the starkest evidence that the seven-year-old war in Ukraine may be entering a new phase is what Capt. Mykola Levytskyi coast guard unit saw cruising in the Azov Sea just outside the port city of Mariupol last week: a flotilla of Russian amphibious assault ships.

Since the start of the war in 2014, Russia has used the pretext of a separatist conflict to pressure Ukraine after its Westward-looking revolution, supplying arms and men to Kremlin-backed rebels in the country’s east while denying it was a party to the fight.

Few Western analysts believe the Kremlin is planning an invasion of eastern Ukraine, given the likely backlash at home and abroad. But with a large-scale Russian troop buildup on land and sea on Ukraine’s doorstep, the view is spreading among officials and wide swathes of the Ukrainian public that Moscow is signaling more bluntly than ever before that it is prepared to openly enter the conflict.

“These ships are, concretely, a threat from the Russian state,” Captain Levytskyi said over the whir of his speedboat’s engines as it plied the Azov Sea, after pointing out a Russian patrol boat stationed six miles offshore. “It is a much more serious threat.”

Many Ukrainian military officials and volunteer fighters say that they still find it unlikely that Russia will openly invade Ukraine, and that they do not see evidence of an imminent offensive among the gathered Russian forces. But they speculate over other possibilities, including Russia’s possible recognition or annexation of the separatist-held territories in eastern Ukraine.

Ukrainians are awaiting President Vladimir V. Putin’s annual state-of-the-nation address to Russia on Wednesday, an affair often rife with geopolitical signaling, for clues about what comes next.

“I feel confused, I feel tension,” Oleksandr Tkachenko, Ukraine’s culture and information policy minister, said in an interview.

Mr. Tkachenko listed some invasion scenarios: a three-pronged Russian attack from north, south and east; an assault from separatist-held territory; and an attempt to capture a Dnieper River water supply for Crimea.

Russia, for its part, has done little to hide its buildup, insisting that it has been massing troops in response to heightened military activity in the region by NATO and Ukraine.

Ukrainian officials deny any plans to escalate the war, but there is no question that President Volodymyr Zelensky has taken a harder line against Russia in recent months.

Mr. Zelensky has closed pro-Russian TV channels and imposed sanctions against Mr. Putin’s closest ally in Ukraine. He has also declared more openly than before his desire to have Ukraine join NATO, a remote possibility that the Kremlin nevertheless regards as a dire threat to Russia’s security.

Interviews with frontline units across a 150-mile swath of eastern Ukraine in recent days underscored the fast-rising tensions in Europe’s only active armed conflict. Officials and volunteers acknowledge apprehension over Russia’s troop movements, and civilians feel numb and hopeless after seven years of war. At least 28 Ukrainian soldiers have been killed in fighting this year, the military says.

“We live in sadness,” said Anna Dikareva, a 48-year-old postal service worker in the frontline industrial town of Avdiivka, where people scarcely flinch when shells explode in the distance. “I don’t want war, but we won’t solve this in a peaceful way, either.”

For much of last year, a cease-fire held.

Mr. Zelensky, a television comedian elected in 2019 on a promise to end the war, negotiated with the Kremlin for step-by-step compromises to ease the hardships of frontline residents and look for ways out of a conflict that has killed more than 13,000 people. But Russia’s insistence on policies that would essentially give it a say in eastern Ukraine’s future was unacceptable to Kyiv.

“The hope that Zelensky had to solve this issue, it didn’t happen,” said Mr. Tkachenko, the information minister and a longtime associate of the president.

Instead, the fighting has picked up again.

The Ukrainians’ labyrinths of trenches and fortifications along the roughly 250-mile front is by now so well established that in one tunnel near Avdiivka, the soldiers put up multicolored Christmas lights to spruce up the darkness. The town lies just a few miles north of the city of Donetsk, the separatists’ main stronghold.

At their hillside battle position, overlooking a separatist position in a T-shaped growth of trees, the soldiers described the sound of separatist drones they said carried land mines dropped about a mile behind the line. Since December and January, they said, sniper fire from the other side increased, and they could see the separatists digging new trenches.

The lettering above the skull on their shoulder patches read: “Ukraine or death.”

“The enemy has activated lately,” said one 58-year-old soldier, nicknamed “the professor,” who said he would not give his full name for security reasons.

In Avdiivka, a volunteer unit of Ukraine’s ultranationalist Right Sector keeps a pet wolf in a cage outside the commander’s office. The commander, Dmytro Kotsyubaylo — his nom de guerre is Da Vinci — jokes that the fighters feed it the bones of Russian-speaking children, a reference to Russian state media tropes about the evils of Ukrainian nationalists.

Both sides have accused each other of increasing numbers of cease-fire violations, but Mr. Kotsyubaylo said that — to his regret — his fighters were allowed to fire only in response to attacks from the separatist side.

On the video screen above his desk, Mr. Kotsyubaylo showed high-definition drone footage depicting the quotidian violence taking place just 400 miles from the European Union’s borders. In one sequence, two of his unit’s mortar rounds explode around separatist trenches; a naked man emerges, sprinting. In another, an explosion is seen at what he said was a separatist sniper position; the clearing smoke reveals a body coated with yellow dust.

Asked what he expects to happen next, Mr. Kotsyubaylo responded: “full-scale war.”

Mr. Kotsyubaylo said he believed Russia’s troop movements north and south of separatist-held territory were a ruse meant to draw Ukrainian forces away from the front line. He said he expected Russia instead to launch an offensive using its separatist proxies in the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk “people’s republics,” allowing Mr. Putin to continue to claim that the war is an internal Ukrainian affair.

“If Russia wanted to do it in secret, they would do it in secret,” Mr. Kotsyubaylo said of the massing troops. “They’re doing everything they can for us to see them, and to show us how cool Putin is.”

Under the peace plan negotiated in Minsk, Belarus, in 2015, both sides’ heavy weaponry is required to be positioned well behind the front line.

Ukraine’s artillery is now stationed in places like a Soviet-era tractor yard in an out-of-the-way village reached by treacherous dirt roads an hour’s drive from Mariupol. Col. Andrii Shubin, the base commander, said he was ready to send his artillery guns and his American-provided weapon-locating radar trucks to the front as soon as the order came.

Ukrainian officials say that they are not repositioning troops in response to the Russian buildup, and that any current troop movements are normal rotations.

On Monday, dozens of tanks and armored vehicles could be seen on the move in the southwest of the government-controlled area of eastern Ukraine’s Donetsk region. Soldiers relaxed on cots at a village train station under graffiti that used an obscenity to refer to Mr. Putin.

Around the region, from Mariupol’s fashionable waterfront to the shrapnel-scarred streets of Avdiivka, many residents said they were so exhausted from the war that they did not even want to consider the possibility that the fighting will flare up again.

Lena Pisarenko, a 45-year-old Russian teacher in Avdiivka, said she had never stopped keeping an emergency supply of water on hand in pots and bottles all over her apartment and her balcony. During the shelling at the height of the war, she created a ritual to keep her children calm: They would play board games and drink tea while three candles burn down three times. Then it was time for bed.

Another woman passing by, Olga Volvach, 41, said she was paying little mind to the recent escalation in shelling.

“Our balcony door isolates sound well,” she said.

Maria Varenikova contributed reporting from Mariupol, Ukraine.

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