Russia Ukraine War McConnell

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky shakes hands with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., right, in Kyiv, Ukraine, on Saturday. Maine Sen. Susan Collins is at left. Ukrainian Presidential Press Office via Associated Press

Sen. Susan Collins returned Monday night from a four-day visit to Europe during which she made a surprise visit to the Ukrainian capital, Kyiv, and met with that country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky.

Collins made the unannounced trip as part of a delegation led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and two of her Republican colleagues, John Cornyn of Texas and John Barrasso of Wyoming, before going on to visit the capitals of Sweden and Finland, two steadfastly neutral nations that have recently announced their intentions to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization in response to Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine.

In an interview Tuesday evening, Collins said the delegation had made the trip in large part to reassure Ukraine that it had bipartisan support in the United States in its ongoing effort to repel the Russian invasion, and to signal support for Sweden and Finland’s NATO bids.

She said Zelensky had greeted them warmly and that they had discussed the need to reopen the shipping lanes needed to get the country’s winter grain harvest to markets around the world. Ukraine is one of the largest suppliers of wheat, and the war – and the mining of Black Sea ports – has raised world prices and fueled a worsening food and security crisis in East Africa.

“Ukrainian farmers wearing armored vests are planting the spring crop, but if they can’t sell the winter crop, they will have no place to store the spring crops and they also won’t get paid,” Collins told the Press Herald. She said Zelensky had asked for more long-range weapons and artillery with which to push back the Russian threat to its largest port, Odesa.

The Republican senators’ visit came amid dissent within their party over the imminent passage of a $40 billion aid package to Ukraine, including $6 billion in equipment, training and intelligence resources for their forces, which have pushed Russia back from Kyiv and have blocked its advances in the eastern part of the country. Eleven Republican senators voted against advancing the package Monday, including McConnell’s Kentucky colleague Rand Paul and Josh Hawley of Missouri. They and a number of Trump-aligned Senate candidates, including J.D. Vance of Ohio, argue the resources should be spent on Americans instead.

“We wanted to assure the president and the people of Ukraine that support for them transcends political parties, and that was particularly important given that (former) President Trump, at the same time we were there, came out against the aid package that we are considering on the Senate floor even as I speak,” Collins said Tuesday night from Washington. “So it was important to have high-ranking Republicans say that Republicans are overwhelmingly for this $40 billion package.”

McConnell pushed back strongly against Trump’s line of argument during the trip to Ukraine. “It’s in our interests to help Ukrainians just like it’s in the interest of NATO countries. So, this is not some handout,” McConnell told reporters on Sunday. “This is to prevent this ruthless thug (Vladimir Putin) from beginning a march through Europe. And the first place to stop him is in Ukraine.”

In her statement Tuesday, Collins did not directly address the dissent in her party, but made it clear where she stood on the aid bill. “My visit reaffirmed my belief that Congress must urgently pass this legislation to support the Ukrainian people,” she said.

Trump was famously friendly with Putin, one of the few world figures he never criticized while in office. One of Trump’s two impeachments was for threatening to withhold military aid to Ukraine, which it needed to deter Russia, unless Zelensky ordered investigators in his country to try to dig up dirt on Hunter Biden, the son of Joe Biden, Trump’s political rival.

Collins said those in her caucus who oppose support for Ukraine are a minority faction. “I don’t know whether it’s President Trump’s opposition over the weekend or Tucker Carlson, so I can’t speak for that,” she said. “But I love the fact we kept the vast majority of the caucus – a strong sign because this is not an inconsequential package.”

Later in their trip, Collins and her colleagues met with Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson and Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and expressed tacit support for those countries’ NATO membership bids.

“We wanted to encourage them and to indicate that we would welcome their joining NATO and would vote in favor of it,” she said. “And they will bring a lot to NATO – these are wealthy countries and Finland has a very accomplished military.”

“The irony is that Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has produced exactly the opposite results of what he intended,” Collins added. “It’s really the ultimate miscalculation.”

In March, Collins met refugees and aid workers in a Polish town on the border with Ukraine as part of a bipartisan Senate delegation that included Sen. Angus King, I-Maine. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat representing Maine’s 1st Congressional District, made visits there and to Moldova, a former Soviet republic many fear would be next in line for invasion were Russian forces able to take the southern Ukrainian port of Odesa.

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