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    Tuesday, March 21, 2023

    Blumenthal travels to Ukraine in secret, meets Zelenskyy, pushes for more tanks

    U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, left, and former U.S. Sen. Chris Dodd, right, talk before inaugural ceremonies for Gov. Ned Lamont at the Governor William A. O'Neill State Armory, Wednesday, Jan. 4, 2023, in Hartford, Conn. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill, Pool)
    Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy pays his respects to victims of a deadly helicopter crash during a farewell ceremony in Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Jan. 21, 2023. Interior Minister Denys Monastyrsky, his Deputy Yevhen Yenin, State Secretary Yurii Lubkovych, national police official and the three crew members were killed in a helicopter crash on Wednesday in Kyiv suburbs of Brovary. (AP Photo/Efrem Lukatsky)

    After meeting with President Volodymyr Zelenskyy under heavy security in Ukraine, Connecticut’s U.S. Sen. Blumenthal says he is returning to Washington, D.C., to push harder for both American and German tanks that are crucially needed to repel the expected Russian offensive in the spring.

    In a telephone interview from Munich, Blumenthal said he would lobby both the White House and the Pentagon to push the Germans to release strategically important Leopard 2 tanks that could reach war-torn Ukraine more quickly than tanks from the United States. The Ukrainians have held off the Russians far longer than diplomats had expected, but they need more equipment to avoid being out-gunned by the aggressive Russian army.

    Fearing retaliation from the Russians, the Germans have been slow to release the tanks, causing high-level talks and tensions in recent days in Germany, Ukraine and the United States.

    “Time is not on our side,’' Blumenthal told The Courant in an interview. “The Russians are resupplying and reinforcing their positions. The tanks are absolutely necessary for the Ukrainians to not only defend against the offensive that the Russians will launch — literally possibly within weeks — but also to do their own offensive attack against the Russians, which could enable them to push the Russians substantially back and possibly out of their country. It’s a really dangerous time for Ukraine, a time of very deep danger, but also major opportunity.’'

    Blumenthal traveled on a bipartisan trip with two other U.S. senators under heavy security and secrecy. The group members did not publicly discuss their trip in advance, and Blumenthal said American officials avoid flying into Ukraine because Russian missiles could shoot down the plane. Instead, they boarded a train and took a 10-hour, overnight trip from Poland to Kyiv, Ukraine.

    He traveled in the American delegation with U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, a Republican from South Carolina, and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, a Democrat from Rhode Island. Blumenthal has visited Ukraine three times in the past 12 months, including with Graham in July. Their work will continue upon their return to Washington.

    “We’re going to be pushing the White House and the administration to continue pushing the Germans,’' said Blumenthal, who plays a key role as a member of the Democratic-controlled Senate Armed Services Committee. “There is a roundabout contention here as to who does what first. We need to eliminate that confusion and contention.’'

    At the same time that Ukraine has been seeking the German-made Leopard 2 tanks that are currently stationed in 15 countries across Europe, they are also seeking American-made M1 Abrams tanks. One of the problems, however, is that the high-tech American tanks are more complicated and require more training, thus slowing down the effort when time is of the essence.

    The Germans need to give permission for the tanks to leave from countries that include Denmark, Spain, and Poland, among others.

    “There’s a kind of gridlock here that has to be broken,’' Blumenthal said. “It is urgent. The Ukrainians desperately need these tanks, and they need them now. ... We need to break this gridlock among the major allies without attributing blame to any one of them. The German motives are not completely transparent, so it’s people reporting that they want America to take that first step with tanks because they are somewhat more fearful about Russian retaliation.’'

    Meeting with Zelenskyy

    Zelenskyy has become a historic figure, and some have compared him to famed British Prime Minister Winston Churchill during World War II.

    Blumenthal has met previously with Zelenskyy, who received standing ovations for his historic speech to Congress in December.

    “He seemed to be in good spirits, but he is deeply concerned about a coming Russian offensive, a major onslaught, this spring,’' Blumenthal said of the recent trip. “His soldiers are bleeding and dying in really brutal conditions. They’re severely out-manned, and we can’t let them be out-gunned.’'

    Blumenthal is looking ahead to prevent a further spread of the war in Europe.

    “If we don’t stop Putin, he will continue his attack on democracies by going against NATO countries, and then we’ll have a treaty obligation to be involved with troops,’' Blumenthal said. “Right now, there should be no American troops on the ground, and I want to make that clear. No American troops because the Ukrainians believe they can win this war if they have the right kinds of arms and weapons. That’s why we need to provide tanks, planes, and longer-range artillery.’'

    The money that is needed to help the Ukrainians has already been earmarked by the U.S. Congress. No additional money is being sought at the moment as Congress is split with a Republican-controlled House of Representatives and Democratic-controlled Senate.

    At the same time as Blumenthal’s trip, the top defense ministers, including U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and his counterparts from Germany and Ukraine, were meeting at Ramstein Air Base in Germany on the same issue of the tanks. Blumenthal’s group, however, did not participate directly in those talks.

    As the war continues, Russian leader Vladimir Putin continues to attack civilian areas in a war of attrition.

    “Putin is a butcher, a war criminal, and he’s committing genocide,’' Blumenthal said. “It is mind-boggling, stomach-turning, and heart-breaking. It harkens back to the atrocities of World War II.’'

    At the same time, Zelenskyy is trying to defend his smaller, less-equipped country.

    “Zelenskyy will be a hero of historic magnitude,’’ Blumenthal said. “To meet with him is to be inspired. My heart soared as I heard him talk about what he is doing, and his travels to the front in some of the most dangerous areas and his visits to the bombed-out apartment houses. He is a leader of historic magnitude and very inspiring.’’

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