Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell and a small group of Republican senators has met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Kyiv, though it’s unclear whether the meeting took place Saturday morning or if the delegation is still there.
“The visit of the U.S. Senate delegation with the leader of the Republican minority in the upper house of Congress, Mitchell McConnell, is a strong signal of bipartisan support for Ukraine from the United States Congress, as well as from the American people,” Zelenskyy wrote on his official Telegram channel, alongside a video of him meeting and shaking hands with the senators. “Thank you for your leadership in helping us fight not only for our country, but also for democratic values and freedoms. We greatly appreciate it.”
Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, John Cornyn of Texas and John Barrasso of Wyoming joined McConnell in Kyiv.
Ukraine has made progress in retaking areas formerly held by Russian forces, but the length of the Russia’s war will depend on the assistance offered by Ukrainian allies, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said.
Although Ukrainians are doing everything they can to resist and drive out Russia, “no one today can predict how long this war will last,” Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Friday.
“This will depend, unfortunately, not only on our people, who are already giving their maximum,” he said. “This will depend on our partners, on European countries, on the entire free world.”
He said Ukrainian troops have retaken over 1,000 “settlements” from Russian control, including six on Friday. They are attempting to restore electricity, running water, telephone communications and social services to those towns and villages, Zelenskyy said. He also said Ukraine on Friday shot down the 200th Russian aircraft since the invasion began.
Russian shelling in the eastern Donetsk region, part of the Donbas region that Russia has been focused on, was responsible for a civilian death and 12 injuries on Friday, Pavlo Kyrylenko, a regional governor, said.
Russian forces also continued their attack on the east Friday, attacking new cities and towns, but failed to take the towns of Zolote and Kamyshevakha, the Ukrainian army said.
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►U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin spoke with Russian Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu on Friday, marking the first contact between the counterparts since the war began in late February.
►The U.S. is again accusing Russia of using the U.N. Security Council to spout disinformation and conspiracy theories about biological weapons in Ukraine to distract from its war in Ukraine. U.S. deputy ambassador Richard Mills called the Russian claims “categorically false and ludicrous.”
►A Swedish report released Friday laid out the pros and cons of obtaining NATO membership as the nation weighs the decision. The report listed Russian cyberattacks as one of the main risks of joining.
Russian troops withdrawing from battered Kharkiv
Russian troops are withdrawing from Ukraine’s second-largest city after weeks of heavy bombardment, the Ukrainian military said Saturday as Kyiv and Moscow’s forces engaged in a grinding battle for the country’s east.
Ukraine’s general staff said the Russians were pulling back from the northeastern city of Kharkiv and focusing on guarding supply routes, while launching mortar, artillery and airstrikes in the eastern Donetsk region 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.”
Russia’s offensive in the Donbas, Ukraine’s eastern industrial heartland, appeared to be turning into a village-by-village, back-and-forth slog with no major breakthroughs on either side. After failing to capture Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, the Russian military decided to concentrate on the Donbas, but its troops have struggled to gain ground.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said Ukraine’s forces made progress, retaking six Ukrainian towns or villages in the past day. Western officials said Ukraine had driven Russian forces back around Kharkiv, which was a key target for Moscow’s troops.
Zelenskyy reports 200th downed Russian military plane
In a video address, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said that Ukrainian forces have downed 200 Russian military planes since the start of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
“Russia hasn’t lost so much aviation in any of the wars in decades,” he said.
The Ukrainian president also claimed 27,000 Russian soldiers have been killed and more than 3,000 tanks, armored vehicles and drones destroyed since the war began, though USA TODAY could not independently verify those numbers, adding that Russia’s “perspective as a state” has been destroyed, as well.
Russian President Vladimir Putin warned Finland’s president in a Saturday phone call that relations between the two nations might suffer if the Nordic country joins NATO.
The Kremlin said in a press release that Putin told Finnish President Sauli Niinisto that Finland’s abandonment “of its traditional policy of military neutrality would be an error since there are no threats to Finland’s security,” adding that the countries’ relations might be damaged.
“Such a change in the country’s foreign policy could negatively affect Russian-Finnish relations, which had been built in the spirit of good neighborliness and partnership for many years, and were mutually beneficial,” the statement added.
Niinisto posted a statement to Twitter summarizing the talk and said the call, initiated by Finland, was “direct and straight-forward and it was conducted without aggravations.” He said Finland plans to seek NATO membership in the “next few days.”
CLUJ-NAPOCA, Romania — Expectant mother Galina Kubiak says she misses her home in Ukraine but has fallen in love with Romania, the neighboring country where she fled with her two small children to escape the war.
“Sometimes we go to the store, and they find out we’re Ukrainians and people give the kids milk or cookies, or sometimes they just give hugs,” the 35-year-old who now lives in Romania’s northern city of Cluj-Napoca said Friday. “I’m so surprised in a good way (by) the kindness of people.”
Since Russia invaded on Feb. 24, more than 6 million people have fled Ukraine, the United Nations refugee agency announced Thursday. Russia’s war — which it insists on calling a “special military operation” — has prompted one of the worst humanitarian crises in Europe since World War II.
Poland has absorbed the majority of refugees — more than 3.2 million — while more than 900,000 went to Romania. Many others have fled to other neighboring countries like Hungary, Slovakia, and Moldova.
The UNHCR also said Thursday that more than 1.6 million refugees have returned to Ukraine, either permanently or temporarily. But it added that cross-border movements might not indicate “sustainable” returns.
Sen. Rand Paul stalls $40 billion in aid for Ukraine
U.S. Sen. Rand Paul blocked the Senate from passing a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine this week, derailing a plan to fast-track legislation his fellow Kentuckian, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, supported.
Paul wanted a provision added into the bill that would assign an inspector general to oversee how these billions are spent. When that didn’t happen, he objected and effectively forced the Senate to wait until next week to vote on the aid for Ukraine because of procedural rules.
“My oath of office is to the U.S. Constitution, not to any foreign nation. And no matter how sympathetic the cause, my oath of office is to the national security of the United States,” he said on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon.
McConnell and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer were working together to try to get the aid approved Thursday.
-Morgan Watkins, Louisville Courier-Journal
Electricity trade from Russia to Finland suspended overnight
Energy trading company RAO Nordic Oy, a subsidiary of the Russian entity Inter RAO, suspended electricity trade between Russia and Finland early Saturday morning, the company and Finland’s national electricity transmission grid operator said.
Rao Nordic said it has not received payment from Finland on the electricity volumes it sold the nation since May 6, causing the pause in service.
“This situation is exceptional and happened for the first time in over twenty years of our trading history,” the company’s statement reads. “We hope that the situation will get improved soon and the electricity trade with Russia could resume.”
Fingrid, which maintains and develops Finland’s electricity transmission grid, said that imported electricity from Russia makes up just 10% of the nation’s total consumption and that the “adequacy of electricity in Finland is not under threat.” Reima Päivinen, senior vice president of power system operations at Fingrid, said in Fingrid’s statement that loss will be compensated for by increasing local electricity generation and importing more electricity from Sweden.
Finland hopes to be self-sufficient in electrical energy by 2023, the company said.
More than 600 children killed or injured since start of Russian invasion
Some 600 children have been killed or injured in Ukraine as a result of Russian aggression since mid-January, according to Ukraine’s prosecutor general’s office.
Since Jan. 14, 227 children have been killed and more than 420 injured in relation to the attacks on Ukraine, the office said in a Telegram post Saturday. Most of the children were killed or injured in the Donetsk region (139), followed by the Kyiv region (116) and the Kharkiv region (99).
The office cautioned that the numbers aren’t final, as death counts in areas of active combat or occupied territories cannot yet be made.
In addition, more than 1,700 educational institutions have been damaged in shellings by Russian forces. Some 144 of those were completely destroyed.
‘Very difficult negotiations’ ongoing to get soldiers out of steel mill
Ukrainian leaders said the government is doing everything possible to negotiate for the evacuation of the wounded soldiers and remaining troops in the Azovstal steel mill in Mariupol.
“We’re talking about a large number of people. Of course, we are doing everything to evacuate all of the rest, each of our defenders. We have already brought in everyone in the world who can be the most influential mediators,” President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address Friday.
Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said misinformation about the negotiations was making the process more difficult, and said officials are currently working on negotiations to rescue 38 “heavily wounded” soldiers. There is an estimated 600 military and wounded still holed up in the bunkers under the steel mill.
“The heart of the country now is Azovstal,” Vereschuk said in a social media post Friday. “Negotiating with the enemy is very difficult. The result may not please everyone. But our job is to get our boys out. All of you. Alive. God willing, everyone will be saved.”
US needs to approve Ukraine funding by May 19 to avoid disruptions
U.S. lawmakers will need to approve the next round of military aid money for Ukraine before May 19 to avoid disruptions in assistance being sent to Ukraine, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said.
President Joe Biden said in announcing the latest round of funding that the U.S. had “nearly exhausted” approved funds. Kirby said Friday there was about $100 million “that has not been allocated or announced.”
“We continue to urge the Senate to act as quickly as possible so that we don’t get to the end of May and not have any additional authorities to draw upon,” Kirby said.
This week Sen. Rand Paul blocked the passage of a $40 billion spending package for Ukraine, delaying until next week the attempt at fast-tracking an aid package that had bipartisan support. Paul wanted a provision added that would assign an inspector general to oversee how the billions are spent. Read more.
“By the 19th of May, it will start impacting our ability to provide aid uninterrupted,” Kirby said.”
Ukraine begins prosecuting alleged Russian war criminals
Ukraine’s prosecutor general said Friday that her office was readying 41 war crimes cases against Russian soldiers.
“We have 41 suspects in cases with which we will be ready to go to court. All of them concern Article 438 of the (Ukrainian) criminal code on war crimes, but different types of war crimes. There is the bombing of civilian infrastructure, the killing of civilians, rape and looting,” Iryna Venediktova said in a live briefing on Ukrainian TV on Friday evening.
It was not immediately clear how many of the suspects would be tried in absentia.
Friday marked the first war crime prosecution of a member of the Russian military in Kyiv, as a 21-year-old Russian soldier went on trial for the killing of an unarmed Ukrainian civilian in the early days of the war.
Venediktova said that two more of the suspects, who are physically in Ukraine, are likely to face preliminary hearings next week.
Contributing: The Associated Press