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

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

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

Zelensky noted “the special role of the United States” in ramping up sanctions against Russia and said he looked forward to additional sanctions against Russian banks. He also called for Russia to be labeled a state sponsor of terrorism.

The unannounced trip to Kiev by McConnell’s delegation was the latest in a parade of high-ranking Western officials including first lady Jill Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), and leaders from Canada and several European countries.

“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 charges on Russia’s naked aggression have a direct and vital impact on America’s national security and vital 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 request of $33 billion. The money would provide Kiev with a new lifeline as Moscow continues its invasion of the south and east of the country.

Passing the measure, which has been approved by the House, would bring total US congressional aid to Ukraine since the February invasion to more than $53 billion. US military aid to Ukraine so far this year has exceeded what other countries, including Israel, have received in fiscal year 2020.

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The Senate is likely to follow the House in approving the package, but that effort has been postponed until next week after Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) objected on Thursday to a quick vote on aid to Ukraine, sparking a bipartisan push. was suppressed to maintain steady aid to Kiev.

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

Lonely Senate Rand Paul postpones vote on aid to Ukraine until next week

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

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

About 600 injured remain 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 officer said.

Turkey has proposed to carry out evacuations, but Russia has not agreed to any plan. Zelensky described the negotiations as “very difficult” late Friday, adding: “We will not stop trying to save all our people from Mariupol and Azovstal.”

Elsewhere in the devastated port city, hundreds of cars carrying evacuees headed north to safety, a local official said Saturday.

“A huge convoy of cars with residents of Mariupol (from 500 to 1,000 cars), who had waited more than three days, was finally allowed to go to Zaporizhzhya,” wrote Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, on Telegram.

The evacuation of civilians has been fraught, with Ukrainian officials often accusing Russian troops of interfering with the humanitarian corridors evacuees must use to get to safety. According to the Azov regiment defending the complex, a steel factory that serves as the last residence of the Ukrainians in the city is still being bombed.

Despite the fighting in Mariupol, Ukrainian forces elsewhere in the west have made gains, pushing Russian troops in the Kharkov region north to the border and recaptured towns and villages in the area, a senior US defense official told reporters on Friday.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, ruled that Ukraine “appears to have won the battle of Kharkov”. It added that the Kremlin has “probably decided to withdraw completely” from its positions around the city amid feisty Ukrainian counter-attacks and limited Russian reinforcements.

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Berlin this weekend to meet with European allies, which comes after Finland and Sweden have indicated they want to join the NATO alliance. Finnish President Sauli Niinistö spoke by phone on Saturday with Russian President Vladimir Putin to inform him directly about 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 the Russian invasion in February, Moscow repeatedly stated that any NATO expansion would threaten Russia’s own security and used this alleged threat as a reason to march into Ukraine.

Putin warned the Finnish president that Finland’s “renunciation of its long-held 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 only 5.5 million inhabitants, was invaded in 1939 by its much larger neighbor, the Soviet Union. Since then, Finnish policy has sought to deal carefully with Soviet and Russian sensitivities and maintain a strict policy of neutrality during the Cold War. The invasion of Ukraine seems to have put an end to that 80-year-old strategy, as Finland, which shares an 800-mile border with Russia, wants to align more closely with Western Europe.

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

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

“The collective West has declared us all-out hybrid war and it’s hard to predict how long all this will last, but it’s clear the repercussions will be felt by everyone, without exception,” he said. “We did everything we could to avoid a direct confrontation, but the challenge was thrown at us, so we accepted it. We’ve always had sanctions, 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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