A week after President Biden traveled to Ukraine to pledge American support in the fight to repel Russia, he has dispatched two senior cabinet members to redouble efforts to prop up the Ukrainian economy and to try to curb the Kremlin’s ability to skirt Western sanctions.
The visits, by Treasury Secretary Janet L. Yellen to the capital, Kyiv, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken into the heart of what Moscow considers its sphere of influence in Central Asia, underscore the Biden administration’s commitment to blocking Moscow’s ambitions in Ukraine as the war enters its second year.
The diplomatic moves by the Biden administration come as President Vladimir V. Putin has spent the past year seeking to reinforce Russia’s influence in Central Asia and to deepen ties with China, which the United States has said is preparing to provide more overt assistance to Moscow.
China is exerting its own diplomatic influence, as it prepares to welcome President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko of Belarus, a staunch ally of Russia, for a three-day visit starting on Tuesday, during which he is expected to meet the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping.
Mr. Blinken was to arrive on Tuesday in Kazakhstan to urge senior Central Asian officials from the former Soviet republics convening there to maintain their independence from Russia and China and not to be complicit in Moscow’s attempts to evade sanctions.
U.S. officials say they are cleareyed about their goals in Central Asia. They do not believe that many of the nations that have remained neutral in the war will make bold statements soon against Russia, since they have decades-long ties, including military relations, to Moscow.
And none of the Central Asian nations voted yes on the United Nations resolution last week calling for Russia to withdraw its troops from Ukraine and agree to a lasting peace recognizing Ukraine’s full sovereignty.
“Our main goal is to show that the United States is a reliable partner, and we see the difficulties that these economies are facing — high food prices, high fuel prices, high unemployment, difficulty in exporting their goods, slow post-Covid recovery and a large influx of migrants from Russia,” Donald Lu, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for South Asia and Central Asia, said at a news briefing on Friday.
For Ms. Yellen, Monday’s unannounced trip to Kyiv highlighted how intertwined national security and economic security have become.
As Treasury secretary, Ms. Yellen — an economist and former Federal Reserve chair — has been involved in devising the sanctions that the United States has imposed on Russia in the past year to put pressure on its economy. She has also designed the price cap that the United States and its allies in the Group of 7 nations enacted to limit the price at which Russian oil can be sold.
Arriving on an overnight train from Poland as air raid sirens blared — just as Mr. Biden did only days ago — Ms. Yellen crisscrossed Kyiv, meeting with the country’s top officials, including President Volodymyr Zelensky; honoring those who had been killed in the conflict; and publicly making the case that the billions of dollars of U.S. taxpayer money were being well spent.
“We welcome President Zelensky’s ardent commitment to handling these funds in the ‘most responsible way,’” Ms. Yellen said, quoting the Ukrainian leader’s words to Congress in December. “Transparency and accountability will become even more important as Ukraine rebuilds its infrastructure and recovers from the impacts of the war.”
Ms. Yellen announced the transfer of $1.25 billion in economic aid to Ukraine — money to help finance schools, firefighters and doctors. It is the first installment of about $10 billion that the United States is providing to Kyiv this year as part of a $45 billion aid package approved by Congress in December.
She vowed that “America will stand with Ukraine for as long as it takes,” making the case that buttressing the Ukrainian economy is equally as important as fortifying the nation’s military.
After she met with Ukraine’s prime minister, Denys A. Shmyhal, at his gilded but barricaded offices, where sandbags filled the windows and doorways, Ms. Yellen said, “We both know that effective military resistance on the front lines of this fight requires a functioning economy and government.”
For Ukraine, the funds cannot come quickly enough.
The International Monetary Fund estimates that the country is facing a monthly budget shortfall of about $5 billion per month. The United States has been urging its European allies to provide more aid and is encouraging the I.M.F. to approve a full loan package for Ukraine.
Although the Biden administration’s commitment to Ukraine appears to be unwavering, there is growing political resistance from Republicans, who are increasingly arguing that the amounts of aid going to Ukraine are risking becoming unaffordable.
Ms. Yellen’s visit was intended to counter that sentiment a month after Mr. Zelensky vowed to take action against corruption in the wake of an official’s dismissal for embezzlement.
Even as Ms. Yellen arrived to Ukraine, the Biden administration was extending its effort to head off Moscow’s own attempts to seek economic aid and other support abroad. American officials have noted the skeptical remarks some top Central Asian officials, including those in Kazakhstan, have made about Mr. Putin and Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine, another former Soviet republic.
The Biden administration aims to exploit that, starting with Mr. Blinken’s trip to Central Asia, his first since Russia’s invasion. Both Mr. Putin and Mr. Xi visited in September.
Mr. Xi’s hosting of Mr. Lukashenko this week will come with all the pomp of a state visit. Belarus is a staunch Kremlin partner, and last year, Mr. Lukashenko allowed Russian forces to use his country as a staging ground for their invasion of Ukraine.
Concerns are deepening in the Biden administration that China will provide lethal aid to the Kremlin’s war effort. And Ms. Yellen told reporters who have been traveling with her this week that China must abide by the American sanctions against Russia.
“We have certainly communicated to China that we expect them to adhere to the sanctions and that any evidence that the government or private firms or financial institutions in China are providing material support that would evade our sanctions is something that would bring really severe consequences and is something that we wouldn’t tolerate,” Ms. Yellen said.
Such threats are not sitting well with China. On Monday, Beijing accused the United States of being “hypocritical” by warning against giving Russia weapons to use in Ukraine.
“While the United States has intensified its efforts to send weapons to one of the conflicting parties, resulting in endless wars and no end in sight for peace, it has frequently spread false information about China’s supply of weapons to Russia,” Mao Ning, a spokeswoman for China’s foreign ministry, said at a news briefing.
As American officials have made frequent visits to Ukraine in recent months, the threat of violence, even far from the front, remains constant.
Ms. Yellen traveled in a police-escorted motorcade, weaving through checkpoints, past concrete blast walls and iron hedgehogs erected to stop Russian tanks. The trenches on the sides of the roads in some places were a reminder of the danger that remained.
Overnight Sunday, Russia launched swarms of drones at Kyiv and other targets across the country, seeking to exhaust Ukrainian air defenses by staggering the attacks, Ukrainian officials said. Ukrainian forces shot down at least nine of the drones over the capital during the attack, which started just before midnight and lasted until just before dawn, the authorities in Kyiv said.
Russian shelling also damaged power infrastructure and caused blackouts in the southern Odesa region on Monday, according to the authorities, the latest setback for an energy system that has weathered months of Russian bombardment.
During Ms. Yellen’s visit, she spoke at Obolon School No. 168, which was severely damaged during Russia’s initial onslaught last year. The school, where the salaries of teachers, administrators and support staff were directly reimbursed by U.S. budget support, has been rebuilt in the past year.
Ms. Yellen also stopped at the square in front of St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery to lay a wreath in memory of those who died and to observe a display of destroyed Russian tanks and armored vehicles.
The Treasury secretary made clear that American aid to Ukraine would keep flowing and that the United States would redouble its efforts against the Russian economy.
“We will continue to work with our international coalition to provide military, economic and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine,” Ms. Yellen said. “And we will continue to impose severe costs on the Kremlin for its illegal war.”
Marc Santora reported from Kyiv, Ukraine, and Alan Rappeport from Rzeszow, Poland. Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Olivia Wang contributed reporting.
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