MUKACHEVO, Ukraine — Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) led a delegation of Republican senators from the United States to Ukraine Saturday, where they visited President Volodymyr Zelensky, as the Russian invasion continues to shift the tectonic plates of European politics and alliances.
Zelensky noted “the special role of the United States” in ramping up sanctions on Russia and said he looked forward to additional sanctions being 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 of Canada and various European nations.
“America’s support for Ukraine’s self-defense is not mere philanthropy,” McConnell said in a statement on Saturday evening. “Defending the principle of sovereignty, promoting stability in Europe, and imposing costs on Russia’s naked aggression have a direct and vital bearing on America’s national security and vital interests.”
The visit is another indication that the Senate will likely soon approve nearly $40 billion in additional military and humanitarian aid for Ukraine, outstripping President Biden’s $33 billion request. The money would extend a fresh lifeline to Kyiv as Moscow plows ahead with its invasion in the country’s south and east.
Passage of the measure, which has been approved by the House, would bring the total of U.S. congressional aid to Ukraine since the February invasion began to more than $53 billion. U.S. military aid to Ukraine so far this year has already surpassed what other countries, including Israel, received in fiscal 2020.
The Senate is likely to follow the House in approving the package, but that effort has been delayed until next week after Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) objected Thursday to a fast vote on the assistance for Ukraine, tamping down a bipartisan push to maintain steady aid to Kyiv.
Paul has faced criticism for the move but stood by his decision, saying the United States can’t afford to send the aid to Ukraine. Though able to stall the vote on the package, he alone cannot stop it once the full Senate gathers. Pentagon spokesman John Kirby has warned that any delay in the passage of the bill beyond Thursday could interrupt the United States’ ability to provide aid to the war-torn nation.
Ukrainian officials have been negotiating with Russia to evacuate 60 “seriously wounded” people and medics from the besieged Azovstal factory in Mariupol.
The Soviet-era steel plant, less than an hour from the Russian border, has been a focus 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.
About 600 injured people are still at the Azovstal complex, without water, food or medicine, a Donetsk regional police officer told a Mariupol news site. Most are sleeping on the floor, and conditions are unsanitary, the officer said.
Turkey has proposed carrying out evacuations but Russia hasn’t agreed to any plan. Zelensky described the negotiations as “very difficult” late Friday, adding: “We do not stop trying to save all our people from Mariupol and Azovstal.”
Elsewhere in the shattered port city, hundreds of cars filled with evacuees departed on a road heading north to safety, a local official said Saturday.
“A huge convoy of cars with Mariupol residents (from 500 to 1,000 cars), who had been waiting for more than three days, was finally allowed to head to Zaporizhzhia,” wrote Petro Andryushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol’s mayor, on Telegram.
The evacuation of civilians has been fraught, with Ukrainian officials frequently accusing Russian forces of interfering with the humanitarian corridors that evacuees are meant to use to reach safety. A steelworks plant serving as Ukrainians’ last holdout in the city continues to face bombardment, according to the Azov Regiment defending the complex.
Despite the struggles in Mariupol, Ukrainian forces have made gains elsewhere in the west, pushing Russian troops in the Kharkiv region north toward the border and reclaiming towns and villages in the area, a senior U.S. defense official told reporters Friday.
The Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, assessed that Ukraine “appears to have won the Battle of Kharkiv.” It added that the Kremlin has “likely decided to withdraw fully” from its positions around the city amid spirited Ukrainian counterattacks and limited Russian reinforcements.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Berlin this weekend to meet with European allies, which comes as Finland and Sweden indicated that they want to join the NATO alliance. Finnish President Sauli Niinistö spoke by phone to Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday to tell him directly of his country’s decision to apply for NATO membership in the coming days. The alliance has indicated it will accept membership bids 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 purported menace as a rationale for marching into Ukraine.
Putin warned the Finnish president that Finland’s “abandoning its long-held policy of military neutrality would be a mistake, since 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 policy has sought to tread carefully around Soviet and Russian sensitivities, maintaining a strict policy of neutrality during the Cold War. The Ukraine invasion seems to have brought that 80-year-old strategy to an end, 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 a “total hybrid war” against Russia during its invasion of Ukraine.
Lavrov said the support given to Ukraine by Western powers, and the historic, wide-ranging sanctions leveled against Russia, would have a lasting impact on the world.
“The collective West has declared total hybrid war on us, and it is hard to predict how long all this will last, but it is clear the consequences will be felt by everyone, without exception,” he said. “We have done everything we can to avoid a direct clash, but the challenge has been thrown to 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.