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Bipartisan Senate delegation meets with Ukrainian leaders amid Russia tensions

Sens. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), Rob Portman (R-Ohio), Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.) speak with the media following their meeting with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in Kyiv on Monday. (Gleb Garanich/Reuters)

A bipartisan delegation of U.S. senators met in Kyiv on Monday with top Ukrainian leaders in what they described as a show of solidarity while the Eastern European country faces ongoing tension with Russia.

The seven lawmakers held talks with President Volodymyr Zelensky and other top officials in his government. The visit comes as Russia has massed an estimated 100,000 troops near portions of its border with Ukraine and diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis have faltered.

“Our bipartisan congressional delegation sends a clear message to the global community: The United States stands in unwavering support of our Ukrainian partners to defend their sovereignty and in the face of persistent Russian aggression,” said Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), one of the lawmakers leading the group.

Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio), also part of the group, said that as Ukraine “continues to defend its territorial integrity against an increasingly aggressive Russia, while also striving to enact critical domestic reforms to solidify its democracy, it is more important than ever that the U.S. support Ukraine in its efforts.”

The others who traveled to Kyiv are Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).

In addition to the briefing with Zelensky, the group also met with Ukraine’s interior and foreign ministers and energy executives, then had a working dinner with the country’s defense minister and his team, Murphy said in a call with reporters. The United States will continue providing “the defensive weapons systems that they need,” he said.

Another focal point was how the United States could aid the “citizen defense of Ukraine, should it become a last resort,” Murphy added.

The Biden administration and lawmakers from both political parties have grown increasingly concerned in recent weeks that Russia may be preparing to invade Ukraine.

Senate Democrats, with the backing of President Biden, unveiled legislation last week that would impose sanctions on Russian President Vladimir Putin and other top Russian military and government officials and key banking institutions, if Moscow engages in hostilities.

A proposal from Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) to sanction entities involved in the Nord Stream 2 pipeline, an effort to pressure Russia not to move on Ukraine, was voted down Thursday. The White House opposed Cruz’s bill, saying it would “undermine unity” among European allies at a sensitive time.

Murphy, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the bipartisan delegation wanted to send a message to Putin by traveling to Ukraine after Cruz’s legislation was defeated. A package of sanctions targeting Russia if it invades Ukraine would enjoy wide Senate support, Murphy said, notwithstanding the debate over “tactics.”

Biden administration officials have warned that the Russian government has sent operatives into eastern Ukraine in preparation for potential sabotage efforts that could serve as a pretext for a renewed Russian invasion.

“The operatives are trained in urban warfare and in using explosives to carry out acts of sabotage against Russia’s own proxy-forces,” a U.S. official said Friday, referring to Russian-backed separatists who have been waging a war against Ukrainian forces in Ukraine’s eastern Donetsk and Luhansk regions.

Speaking to reporters in Moscow on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov called Washington’s claims “total disinformation.”

For months, top Russian officials have been warning that Ukraine is preparing an attempt to retake the separatist regions in its east. Top Ukrainian and U.S. officials have denied having any such plans and described the Russian comments as an effort to cast Kyiv falsely as an aggressor and lay the groundwork for a new invasion.

The Kremlin has sought formal assurances that the United States and NATO will halt the alliance’s eastward expansion and dial back its military presence in Eastern Europe, demands that U.S. and NATO officials rejected during a series of talks with their Russian counterparts last week.

Isabelle Khurshudyan in Moscow contributed to this report.