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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.) led a delegation of Republican United States senators to Ukraine on Saturday, where they visited President Volodymyr Zelensky, as the invasion Russian continues to shift the tectonic plates of European politics and alliances.

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

Zelensky noted “the special role of the United States” in escalating sanctions against Russia and said he looked forward to additional sanctions being imposed on Russian banks. He also called for Russia to be branded as a state sponsor of terrorism.

McConnell’s delegation’s unannounced trip to Kyiv was the latest in a parade of top Western officials which included First Lady Jill Biden, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (D-California) and leaders from Canada and various European countries.

Officials representing Republican senators did not respond to requests for comment, but the visit is another indication that the Senate will likely soon approve nearly $40 billion in additional military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine, exceeding the request. of $33 billion from President Biden. The money would prolong another lifeline for kyiv as Moscow continues its invasion of the country’s south and east.

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

The list of anti-Ukrainian Republican lawmakers is growing rapidly

The Senate will likely follow the House in approving the package, but that effort was delayed until next week after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) opposed a quick vote on Ukraine aid on Thursday. , stifling a bipartisan push. maintain constant aid to kyiv.

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

Senate lone opponent Rand Paul delays Ukraine aid vote until next week

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

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

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

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

Elsewhere in the devastated port city, hundreds of cars full of evacuees set off on a northbound road to safety, a local official said on Saturday.

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

The evacuation of civilians has been difficult, with Ukrainian officials frequently accusing Russian forces of interfering with humanitarian corridors that evacuees are supposed to travel to safety. A steel plant serving as the last Ukrainian stronghold in the city continues to face shelling, according to the Azov regiment defending the complex.

Despite struggles in Mariupol, Ukrainian forces have made progress elsewhere in the west, pushing Russian troops in the Kharkiv region north toward the border and retaking towns and villages in the region, reporters told Friday. a senior US defense official.

The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said Ukraine “appears to have won the battle for Kharkiv”. He added that the Kremlin “probably decided to pull out completely” from its positions around the city amid spirited Ukrainian counterattacks and limited Russian reinforcements.

How Ukraine Became the Top 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 indicated they want to join the NATO alliance. Finnish President Sauli Niinistö spoke on Saturday by telephone with 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 the Russian invasion in February, Moscow has repeatedly stated that any NATO expansion would threaten Russia’s own security and used this alleged threat as justification for entering Ukraine.

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

A country of just 5.5 million people, Finland was invaded by its much larger neighbor, the Soviet Union, in 1939. Since then, Finnish policy has sought to carefully circumvent Soviet and Russian sensibilities, maintaining a strict policy of neutrality during the Cold War. . The invasion of Ukraine appears to have ended this 80-year-old 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 on Saturday that the West had declared “all-out hybrid war” against Russia during its invasion of Ukraine.

Lavrov said the support extended to Ukraine by Western powers and the historic far-reaching sanctions imposed on Russia would have a lasting impact on the world.

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