Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is on the first visit to Kyiv by a senior U.S. official from the administration of President Joe Biden, has called on Russia to cease its "reckless and aggressive actions" against Ukraine.
"We stand strongly with you...and we look to Russia to cease reckless and aggressive actions," Blinken told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy as the two met on May 6.
From the outset, Blinken's one-day visit was being portrayed by the White House as a strong message of support for the country in the face of heightened tensions with Russia.
Before meeting Zelenskiy, he told Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba that he "strongly" reaffirmed Washington's commitment to "the partnership between our countries, our commitment to Ukraine's sovereignty, territorial integrity, and independence."
Last month, Russia amassed tens of thousands of troops on Ukraine's borders as well as in annexed Crimea, the biggest mobilization since Moscow seized the Ukrainian peninsula in 2014 and war broke out in eastern Ukraine, where Russia is backing separatists.
"We're aware that Russia has withdrawn some forces from the border with Ukraine, but we also see that significant forces remain there," Blinken said.
"We'll continue to strengthen our security partnership and in-flux collaboration with you to make sure Ukraine can defend itself against aggression," he added.
Zelenskiy said Russia had only removed 3,000 to 3,500 troops from Crimea.
In Brussels, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said the 30-nation military alliance "needs to stay vigilant and closely monitor the developments" in and around Ukraine.
“We have seen some reduction in the number of Russian troops, but tens of thousands remain, and we also see that Russia has kept a lot of weapons, prepositioned equipment, and they’re also imposing restrictions in the Black Sea,” he told reporters.
Kuleba told Blinken that Kyiv "deeply appreciates" the U.S. aid his country has received to support its battle against Moscow-backed separatists in the east, where fighting has been intensifying since January.
Zelenskiy also thanked the United States for its support “not only in words but through actions,” but said that Ukraine "desperately" needs more.
The Ukrainian president pushed his country’s desire to join the NATO military alliance, asking Blinken for support in securing a Membership Action Plan at a summit of the alliance in June.
When asked about Washington’s position on Ukraine joining the military alliance, White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre said the U.S. administration “is committed to ensuring that the NATO door remains open to aspirants, when they are ready and able to meet the commitments."
A statement issued on the eve of Blinken's trip by the U.S. State Department on the strategic partnership between Kyiv and Washington does not mention Ukraine's NATO aspirations, but says the United States continues to monitor the situation regarding "Russia's ongoing aggressive actions and rhetoric targeting Ukraine."
The statement notes that since 2014, the United States has provided Ukraine more than $4.6 billion in total assistance.
The statement also reiterates the U.S. position that Donbas and Crimea are part of Ukraine and calls on Russia to return full control of the peninsula to Ukraine and work in good faith to end the conflict in eastern Ukraine.
While making a point of showing support for Kyiv, U.S. officials underscore the importance of Ukrainian efforts to tackle corruption, notably in the energy sector, and carry out reforms.
"Ukraine is facing two challenges: aggression from outside, coming from Russia, and in effect aggression from within, coming from corruption, oligarchs and others who are putting their interests ahead of those of the Ukrainian people," Blinken said during his joint press conference with Zelenskiy.
The top U.S. diplomat told Kuleba that Washington will "work with you and continue to strengthen your own democracy, building institutions, advancing your reforms against corruption."
Blinken's statement came after State Department spokesman Ned Price this week slammed the move to replace the board of the state-owned oil and gas company Naftogaz, saying it "reflects a disregard for fair and transparent corporate-governance practices and complicates long-standing efforts to reform Ukraine's energy sector and improve its investment climate."
The government on April 28 announced the dismissal of Andriy Kobolyev, Naftogaz's chief executive since 2014, citing the "unsatisfactory" results of the company's operations last year, when it posted a loss of nearly $700 million.
The supervisory board, which was temporarily suspended in order to dismiss Kobolyev, issued a statement on April 30 saying that all its members were submitting notice of their resignations, effective May 14.