Mitch McConnell and GOP leaders visit Ukraine ahead of new NATO membership bids from Sweden and Finland

Mitch McConnell and GOP leaders visit Ukraine ahead of new NATO membership bids from Sweden and Finland

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MUKACHEVO, Ukraine — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Saturday led a delegation of Republican senators from the United States to Ukraine, where they visited President Volodymyr Zelenskyy as Russia’s invasion shattered the tectonic plates of European politics further shifts and alliances.

Zelenskyy welcomed four American lawmakers on a street in Kyiv, calling their visit “a strong signal of the bipartisan support of Ukraine by the US Congress and the American people,” his office said in a statement. McConnell was accompanied by Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), John Barrasso (Wyo.), and John Cornyn (Tex.).

Noting “the special role of the United States” in tightening sanctions against Russia, Zelenskyy said he looked forward to additional sanctions against Russian banking. He also called for Russia to be branded as a state sponsor of terrorism.

The unannounced trip to Kyiv by McConnell’s delegation was the last in a parade of senior Western officials These included First Lady Jill Biden, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and leaders of Canada and various European nations.

“America’s support for Ukraine’s self-defense is not just philanthropy,” McConnell said in a statement Saturday night. “Defending the principle of sovereignty, promoting stability in Europe, and inflicting costs on Russia’s naked aggression have a direct and critical impact on national security and vital American interests.”

The visit is another indication that the Senate is likely to soon approve nearly $40 billion in additional military and humanitarian aid to 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 country’s south and east.

Passing the measure, which was approved by the House of Representatives, would bring total US Congress aid to Ukraine to more than $53 billion since the invasion began in February. US military aid to Ukraine 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 pushed back to next week after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) objected to a quick vote on aid to Ukraine on Thursday and a bipartisan push had stopped maintaining permanent aid to Kyiv.

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

Rand Paul, lone Senate refuser, postpones vote on aid to Ukraine until next week

Ukrainian officials have negotiated with Russia to evacuate 60 “seriously wounded” people and medics from the besieged Azovstal factory in Mariupol.

The Soviet-era steelworks, less than an hour from the Russian border, has been a flashpoint of intense Russian bombing and fighting as week after week Ukrainian soldiers and civilians hid in a cavernous network of besieged Cold War-era bunkers and tunnels on all sides and slowly starve.

About 600 wounded are still in the Azovstal complex without water, food or medicine, a Donetsk regional police officer told a Mariupol news site. Most sleep on the floor and conditions are unsanitary, the official said.

Turkey has proposed evacuations, but Russia has not agreed to any plan. Zelenskyy described the negotiations late Friday as “very difficult,” adding, “We don’t stop trying to save all our people from Mariupol and Azovstal.”

Elsewhere in the devastated port city, hundreds of cars full of evacuees headed north for safety on a road, a local official said Saturday.

“A huge car convoy of Mariupol residents (from 500 to 1,000 cars), which had been waiting for more than three days, was finally allowed to go to Zaporizhia,” wrote Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to Mayor of Mariupol, by telegram.

The evacuation of civilians was difficult, with Ukrainian officials frequently blaming Russian forces for disrupting humanitarian corridors the evacuees were supposed to use to get to safety. A steel mill serving as the Ukrainians’ last stronghold in the city continues to be bombed, according to the Azov regiment defending the complex.

Despite fighting in Mariupol, Ukrainian forces have made gains elsewhere in the west, pushing Russian troops in the Kharkiv region north toward the border and retaking towns and villages in the region, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters on Friday.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, assessed that Ukraine “appeared to have won the battle of Kharkiv.” It added that the Kremlin “probably decided to withdraw completely” from its positions around the city amid lively Ukrainian counterattacks and limited Russian reinforcements.

How Ukraine became the top recipient of US military aid

Foreign Minister Antony Blinken is in Berlin this weekend to meet with European allies as Finland and Sweden have signaled they want to join the NATO alliance. Finnish President Sauli Niinistö spoke to Russian President Vladimir Putin by phone on Saturday to update him directly on his country’s decision to apply for NATO membership in the coming days. The Alliance has indicated that it will accept membership applications from Finland and Sweden.

In the run-up to the Russian invasion in February, Moscow repeatedly stated that any NATO expansion would endanger Russia’s own security, and used this alleged threat as a justification for invading Ukraine.

Putin warned the Finnish President that Finland’s “abandonment of its longstanding policy of military neutrality would be a mistake as there are no threats to Finland’s security,” Russia’s RIA Novosti news agency reported.

Finland, a country of just 5.5 million people, was invaded by its much larger neighbor, the Soviet Union, in 1939. Since then, Finnish politics has sought to carefully sidestep Soviet and Russian sensitivities, maintaining a strict policy of neutrality throughout the Cold War. The invasion of Ukraine appears to have brought this 80-year-old strategy to an end as Finland, which shares an 800-mile border with Russia, seeks a closer rapprochement with Western Europe.

Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed on Saturday that the West had declared a “total hybrid war” on Russia during its invasion of Ukraine.

Lavrov said Western powers’ support for Ukraine and historic, sweeping sanctions against Russia would have a lasting impact on the world.

“The collective West has declared total 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 did everything we could to avoid a direct clash, but the challenge was thrown at us, so we accepted it. We’ve always been sanctioned, so we’re used to it.”

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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