Lawmakers put $40 billion Ukraine aid bill on fast track for approval

Lawmakers put $40 billion Ukraine aid bill on fast track for approval

Final congressional approval of a $40 billion Ukraine aid bill seems certain within days as top Senate Republicans said Wednesday that they expect strong Republican backing for the House-passed measure, signaling a bipartisan, heightened U.S. commitment to helping thwart the bloody Russian invasion.

“I think there’ll be substantial support,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, said about the legislation, which cleared the House late Tuesday by an emphatic 368-57 margin. “We’re going to try to process it as soon as possible.”

The Senate’s No. 2 Republican leader, John Thune of South Dakota, predicted “a big vote over here” for the bill, which he and others suggested might come Thursday but could spill into next week. Mr. Thune said some Republicans would vote against the bill and use procedural tactics to slow it where possible, but he added, “I think because there’s so much forward momentum behind doing this and doing it in a timely way that I don’t think we’ll have anybody who will hold it up.”

With Russia’s would-be lightning takeover of its smaller neighbor now shifted to a grinding war of attrition in Ukraine’s east and south, a Kremlin official condemned the planned U.S. aid boost to Kyiv, calling it part of a proxy war by Washington.

Dmitry Medvedev, deputy head of the Russian Security Council and a former president, said on a messaging app that the aid was driven by a desire to “inflict a heavy defeat on our country, restrict its economic development and political influence in the world.”

The Kremlin left open the possibility of annexing a corner of Ukraine that it seized early in the invasion.

Also Wednesday, Ukraine’s top prosecutor disclosed plans for the first war crimes trial of a captured Russian soldier.

Prosecutor General Iryna Venediktova said her office charged Sgt. Vadin Shyshimarin, 21, in the killing of an unarmed 62-year-old civilian who was gunned down while riding a bicycle in February, four days into the war.

On the economic front, Ukrainian officials shut down one of the pipelines that carry Russian gas across the country to homes and industries in Western Europe. It was the first time since the start of the war that Kyiv disrupted the flow westward of one of Moscow’s most lucrative exports.

The immediate effect is likely to be limited, in part because Russia can divert the gas to another pipeline and because Europe relies on a variety of suppliers.

Lightning speed

On Capitol Hill, it has taken two weeks for lawmakers to receive President Biden’s initial $33 billion package, enlarge it and move it to the brink of passage — lightning speed for a Congress closely divided along party lines. That reflects a bipartisan consensus that Ukraine’s outnumbered forces need additional Western help as soon as possible, with added political pressure fueled by near-daily reports of atrocities against civilians inflicted by Russian President Vladimir Putin’s military.

“Act quickly we must …,” said Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat. “We have a moral obligation to stand with our friends in Ukraine.”

The latest legislation would bring American support for the effort to nearly $54 billion, including the $13.6 billion Congress approved in March. That is about $6 billion more than the U.S. spent on all its foreign and military aid in 2019, according to a January report by the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, which studies issues for lawmakers.

Washington has become increasingly assertive about its goals and its willingness to help Ukraine with more sophisticated weapons. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said recently that the U.S. wants a “weakened” Russia that can’t quickly restore its capability to attack other countries.

Reports have emerged about U.S. intelligence helping Ukrainians kill Russian generals and sink the Russian missile cruiser Moskva. The Kremlin has reacted with anger.

The measure sailed to House passage with the support of every voting Democrat. Roughly a quarter of Republicans opposed it. The bill would provide $7 billion more than Mr. Biden’s request from April, dividing the increase evenly between defense and humanitarian programs.

The bill would give Ukraine military and economic assistance, help regional allies, replenish weapons that the Pentagon has shipped overseas and provide $5 billion to address global food shortages caused by the war’s crippling of Ukraine’s normally robust production of crops.

“As Putin desperately accelerates his campaign of horror and brutality in Ukraine, time is of the essence,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat.

Some Republicans used the election-season debate to accuse Mr. Biden of being unclear about his goals in the clash.

“Honestly, do we not deserve a plan?” said Rep. Michael Burgess, Texas Republican. He said he agrees that Western countries must help Ukraine stand up to Russia but added, “Does the administration not need to come to us with where we are going with this?”

Oksana Markarova, Ukrainian ambassador to the U.S., attended separate Democratic and Republican Senate lunches Tuesday and expressed gratitude for the support her country has received.

The new measure includes $6 billion to arm and train Ukrainian forces, $8.7 billion to restore American stores of weapons shipped to Ukraine and $3.9 billion for U.S. forces deployed to the area. There is also $8.8 billion in economic support for Ukraine, $4 billion to help Ukraine and allies finance arms and equipment purchases and $900 million for housing, education and other help for Ukrainian refugees in the U.S.

Raging battles

On the battlefield, Ukrainian officials said a Russian rocket attack targeted an area around Zaporizhzhia, destroying unspecified infrastructure. There were no immediate reports of casualties. The southeastern city has been a refuge for civilians fleeing the Russian siege in the devastated port city of Mariupol.

Russian forces continued to pound the steel plant that is the last bastion of Ukrainian resistance in Mariupol, its defenders said. The Azov Regiment said on social media that Russian forces carried out 38 airstrikes in 24 hours on the grounds of the Azovstal steelworks.

The plant, with its network of tunnels and bunkers, has sheltered hundreds of Ukrainian troops and civilians during a months-long siege. Scores of civilians were evacuated in recent days, but Ukrainian officials said some may still be trapped there.

In his nightly address Tuesday, President Volodymyr Zelenskyy suggested that Ukraine’s military is gradually pushing Russian troops away from Kharkiv, the country’s second-largest city and a key to Russia’s offensive in the Donbas, the eastern industrial region whose capture the Kremlin says is its main objective.

Ukraine is also targeting Russian air defenses and resupply vessels on Snake Island in the Black Sea in an effort to disrupt Moscow’s efforts to expand its control over the coastline, according to the British Ministry of Defense.

In the southern Kherson region, site of the first major Ukrainian city to fall in the war, a Kremlin-backed local leader said officials there want Mr. Putin to make Kherson a “proper region” of Russia — that is, annex it.

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