McConnell, GOP senators meet Zelenskyy in surprise Kyiv stop

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell and a delegation of GOP senators met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv during an unannounced visit Saturday, delivering the latest show of American solidarity with the country at war with Russia.
A video posted on Zelenskyys Telegram account showed McConnell, R-Ky., and Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Cornyn of Texas greeting him in the capital. Zelensky, in an Instagram post, called the visit a strong signal of bipartisan support for Ukraine from the United States Congress and the American people.
The trip came at a time when the Senate is working to approve a nearly $40 billion package for Ukraine, a substantial infusion of support that will push American aid to the region well above $50 billion. The measure includes $6 billion for Ukraine for intelligence, equipment and training for its forces, plus $4 billion in financing to help Ukraine and NATO allies build up their militaries.
Passage was delayed Thursday by Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky, who demanded the inclusion of a proposal to have an inspector general scrutinize the new spending. But final approval is not in doubt and could come in the week ahead, reflecting overwhelming support in Congress for replenishing the Ukrainian war effort.
Theyre only asking for the resources they need to defend themselves against this deranged invasion, McConnell said this past week of the Ukrainians. And they need this help right now.
It was the second high-profile congressional delegation to stop in Ukraine in as many weeks. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., visited on May 1 with a group of House Democrats and promised Zelenskyy that the United States will be there for you until the fight is done.
First lady Jill Biden visited western Ukraine last weekend for a Mothers Day meeting with Zelenskyy's wife, Olena Zelenska.
Meanwhile, Russian troops were withdrawing from around Ukraines second-largest city after bombarding it for weeks, the Ukrainian military said Saturday, as Kyiv and Moscow's forces engaged ina grinding battlefor the countrys eastern industrial heartland.
Ukraines general staff said the Russian forces were pulling back from the northeastern city of Kharkiv and focusing on guarding supply routes, while launching mortar, artillery and airstrikes in the eastern province of Donetsk in order to deplete Ukrainian forces and destroy fortifications.
Defense Minister Oleksii Reznikov said Ukraine was entering a new long-term phase of the war.
After failing to capture Kyiv following the Feb 24 invasion, Russian President Vladimir Putin has shifted his focus eastward to the Donbas, an industrial region where Ukraine has battled Moscow-backed separatists since 2014.
The offensive aims to encircle Ukraine's most experienced and best-equipped troops, who are deployed in the east, and to seize parts of the Donbas that remain in Ukraine's control.
Airstrikes and artillery barrages make it extremely dangerous for journalists to move around in the east, hindering efforts to get a full picture of the fighting. But it appears to be a back-and-forth slog without major breakthroughs on either side.
Russia has captured some Donbas villages and towns, including Rubizhne, which had a prewar population of around 55,000.
Zelenskyy said Ukraines forces have also made progress in the east, retaking six towns or villages in the past day. In his nightly address Saturday, he said the situation in Donbas remains very difficult and Russian troops were still trying to come out at least somewhat victorious.
Step by step, Zelenskyy the president said, we are forcing the occupants to leave the Ukrainian land.
Kharkiv, which is near the Russian border and only 80 kilometers (50 miles) southwest of the Russian city of Belgorod, has undergone weeks of intense shelling. The largely Russian-speaking city with a prewar population of 1.4 million was a key military objective earlier in the war, when Moscow hoped to capture and hold major cities.
Ukraine appears to have won the Battle of Kharkiv, the Institute for the Study of War, a Washington-based think tank, said. Ukrainian forces prevented Russian troops from encircling, let alone seizing Kharkiv, and then expelled them from around the city, as they did to Russian forces attempting to seize Kyiv.
Regional Gov. Oleh Sinegubov said via the Telegram messaging app that there had been no shelling attacks on Kharkiv in the past day.
He added that Ukraine launched a counteroffensive near Izyum, a city 125 kilometers (78 miles) south of Kharkiv that has been held by Russia since at least the beginning of April.
Fighting was fierce on the Siversky Donets River near the city of Severodonetsk, where Ukraine has launched counterattacks but failed to halt Russias advance, said Oleh Zhdanov, an independent Ukrainian military analyst.
The fate of a large portion of the Ukrainian army is being decided there are about 40,000 Ukrainian soldiers, he said.
However, Russian forces suffered heavy losses in a Ukrainian attack that destroyed a pontoon bridge they were using to try to cross the same river in the town of Bilohorivka, Ukrainian and British officials said.
Britains defense ministry said Russia lost significant armored maneuver elements of at least one battalion tactical group in the attack. A Russian battalion tactical group consists of about 1,000 troops.
The ministry said the risky river crossing was a sign of the pressure the Russian commanders are under to make progress in their operations in eastern Ukraine.
Zelenskyy has warned of a global food crisis as Russia blockades Ukrainian grain from leaving port.
TheGroup of Seven leading economiesechoed that Saturday, saying that Russias war of aggression has generated one of the most severe food and energy crises in recent history, which now threatens those most vulnerable across the globe.
Putin launched the war in Ukraine aiming to thwart NATOs expansion in Eastern Europe.
But the invasion has other countries along Russias flank worried they could be next, and this week the president and prime minister of Finland said they favor seeking NATO membership. Officials in Sweden are expected to announce a decision Sunday on whether to apply to join the Western military alliance.
In a phone call Saturday,Putin told Finnish President Sauli Niinistothat there are no threats to Finlands security and joining NATO would be an error and negatively affect Russian-Finnish relations.
The Kremlin said the two leaders had a frank exchange of views.
Niinisto said the discussion was straightforward and unambiguous and was held without exaggeration. Avoiding tensions was considered important.
Russias response to the moves by Finland and Sweden has so far been muted, though Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko said their accession to NATO would heighten security tensions in the Arctic, turning it into an arena of military competition.
Russian energy group Inter RAO suspended deliveries of electricity to Finland on Saturday, according to a statement from the Finnish national electrical grid operator. But only around 10% of Finlands electricity comes from Russia, and authorities did not expect shortages.
The Nordic nations' potential bidswere thrown into questionFriday when Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country is not of a favorable opinion.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was scheduled to meet his NATO counterparts, including Turkey's foreign minister, this weekend in Germany.
In other developments:
Ukrainian fighters holed up in a steel plant in the ruined southern port of Mariupol faced continued attacks on the city's last stronghold of resistance. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said authorities were negotiating the evacuation of 60 severely wounded troops, but Russia had not agreed to the evacuation of all wounded fighters at the steelworks, who number in the hundreds.
An adviser to Mariupol Mayor Petro Andryushenko said via Telegram that a convoy of between 500 and 1,000 cars carrying civilians from the city was allowed to enter Ukraine-controlled territory and was headed for Zaporizhzhia, the first major city beyond the front lines.
The deputy speaker of Russia's parliament, Anna Kuznetsova, visited Kherson, a region bordering the Black Sea that has been held by Russia since early in the war. Russia has installed a pro-Moscow regional administration, and Britains defense ministry said Russia could stage a local referendum on joining Russia with results likely manipulated to show majority support.
Zelenskyy signed into law a measure allowing for the banning of political parties found to be supporting or defending Russias invasion, the head of the national parliaments legal policy committee reported.
Yesica Fisch in Bakhmut, Yuras Karmanau in Lviv, Mstyslav Chernov in Kharkiv, Elena Becatoros in Odesa, Jill Lawless in London and other AP staffers around the world contributed to this report.

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