Mitch McConnell and Republican leaders visit Ukraine ahead of new Swedish and Finnish bids for NATO membership

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MUKACHEVO, Ukraine — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) led a delegation of Republican United States senators to Ukraine on Saturday, where they visited President Volodymyr Zelensky, as the Russian invasion continues to displace tectonic plates of European politics and politics. alliances

Zelensky greeted four US lawmakers on a kyiv street, calling his visit “a powerful signal of bipartisan support for Ukraine from the US Congress and the American people,” his office said in a statement. McConnell was joined by Senators Susan Collins (Maine), John Barrasso (Wyoming), and John Cornyn (Texas).

Zelensky pointed to “the special role of the United States” in increasing sanctions on Russia and said he hoped additional sanctions would be imposed on Russian banking. He also called for Russia to be branded a state sponsor of terrorism.

The unannounced trip to kyiv by McConnell’s delegation was the latest in a parade of high-level Western officials. that has included First Lady Jill Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and leaders from Canada and several European nations.

“America’s support for Ukraine’s self-defense is not mere philanthropy,” McConnell said in a statement Saturday night. “Defending the principle of sovereignty, promoting stability in Europe, and imposing costs on Russia’s open aggression have a direct and vital bearing on the national security and vital interests of the United States.”

The visit is another indication that the Senate will likely soon approve nearly $40 billion in additional military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine, surpassing President Biden’s $33 billion request. The money would extend a new lifeline to kyiv as Moscow presses ahead with its invasion of the south and east of the country.

Approval of the measure, which has passed the House, would bring the total US congressional aid to Ukraine since the February invasion began to more than $53 billion. US military aid to Ukraine so far this year has already exceeded what other countries, including Israel, received in fiscal 2020.

The list of anti-Ukrainian Republican lawmakers is growing rapidly

The Senate is likely to follow the House in approving the package, but that effort was delayed until next week after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) on Thursday opposed a snap vote on aid to Ukraine. , suppressing a bipartisan impulse. to keep aid to kyiv constant.

Paul has faced criticism for the move, but stood by his decision, saying the United States cannot afford to send the aid to Ukraine. While he can stop the vote on the package, he alone can’t stop it once the full Senate convenes. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby warned that any delay in passing the bill beyond Thursday could disrupt the US’s ability to provide aid to the war-torn nation.

Rand Paul, the only holdout from the Senate, delays the vote on aid to Ukraine until next week

Ukrainian officials have been negotiating with Russia to evacuate 60 “severely injured” people and doctors from the besieged Azovstal factory in Mariupol.

The Soviet-era steel plant, less than an hour from the Russian border, has been the focus of heavy Russian shelling and fighting, as Ukrainian soldiers and civilians hid week after week in a cavernous network of bunkers and tunnels from the Cold War era, besieged on all sides and slowly starving.

Some 600 injured people remain in the Azovstal compound, without water, food or medicine, a Donetsk regional police officer told the Mariupol news site. Most sleep on the floor and conditions are unsanitary, the officer said.

Turkey has proposed evacuations but Russia has not agreed to any plans. Zelensky described the negotiations as “very difficult” on Friday night, adding: “We do not stop trying to save all our people from Mariupol and Azovstal.”

Elsewhere in the shattered port city, hundreds of cars full of evacuees set off on a highway heading north to safety, a local official said Saturday.

“A large car convoy with residents of Mariupol (500 to 1,000 cars), who had been waiting for more than three days, was finally able to go to Zaporizhzhia,” wrote Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to The mayor of Mariupol, on Telegram.

The evacuation of civilians has been tense, with Ukrainian officials frequently accusing Russian forces of interfering with humanitarian corridors that evacuees must use to reach safety. A steel plant that serves as the last stronghold of Ukrainians in the city continues to be under shelling, according to the Azov Regiment defending the complex.

Despite the fighting in Mariupol, Ukrainian forces have made gains elsewhere in the west, pushing Russian troops in the Kharkiv region north towards the border and retaking towns and villages in the area, a senior official said on Friday. of defense of the United States to journalists.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, assessed that Ukraine “appears to have won the Battle of Kharkiv.” He added that the Kremlin “has probably decided to fully withdraw” from its positions around the city amid vigorous Ukrainian counterattacks and limited Russian reinforcements.

How Ukraine became the main recipient of US military aid

Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Berlin this weekend to meet with European allies, which comes as Finland and Sweden have signaled they want to join the NATO alliance. The Finnish president, Sauli Niinistö, spoke this Saturday by phone with the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, to inform him directly of his country’s decision to apply for NATO membership in the coming days. The alliance has indicated that it will accept membership offers from Finland and Sweden.

In the run-up to Russia’s invasion in February, Moscow repeatedly declared that any NATO expansion would threaten Russia’s own security and used this perceived threat as a justification for marching on Ukraine.

Putin warned the Finnish president that “abandonment of his long-standing policy of military neutrality would be a mistake, as there are no threats to Finland’s security,” the Russian news agency RIA Novosti reported.

A country of just 5.5 million people, Finland was invaded by its much larger neighbor, the Soviet Union, in 1939. Since then, Finnish politics has tried to tread carefully around Soviet and Russian sensibilities, maintaining a strict neutrality policy during the Cold War. . The invasion of Ukraine appears to have put an end to that 80-year strategy as Finland, which shares an 800-mile border with Russia, seeks to align itself more closely with Western Europe.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed Saturday that the West has declared an “all-out hybrid war” against Russia during its invasion of Ukraine.

Lavrov said that the support given to Ukraine by Western powers and the historic and comprehensive sanctions imposed against Russia will have a lasting impact on the world.

“The collective West has declared an all-out hybrid war on us, and it is difficult to predict how long this will all last, but it is clear that the consequences will be felt by everyone, without exception,” he said. “We have done everything possible to avoid a direct clash, but the challenge has been thrown at us, so we accepted it. We have always been under sanctions, so we are used to them.”

Barrett, Bella and Iati reported from Washington and Duplain from London. Victoria Bissett and Ellen Francis in London; Amy Cheng and Andrew Jeong in Seoul; and Tobi Raji and Meryl Kornfield in Washington contributed to this report.

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