Five things to know about the Russia-Ukraine war this week

Almost three months after the Russian invasion began, Ukrainian forces are launching counterattacks to regain territory while the US moves toward providing billions of additional aid to the war-torn country.

With Ukraine continuing to face a brutal Russian offensive in its eastern Donbas region, President Biden requested late last month that Congress approve $33 billion in security, economic and humanitarian assistance for Ukraine.

The House passed a package on Tuesday worth billions of dollars more than the president asked for. Senate leaders tried for a quick approval of the bill in the upper chamber as well, but it’s been held up in the Senate by Republican Sen. Rand Paul (Ky.)

Amid the delay, a delegation of Republican senators were led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) to Ukraine on Saturday to meet Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

Recent days also saw Ukraine reclaiming territory from Russian forces in its northeast and Finland announcing its intentions to apply for NATO membership amid Russian opposition.

Here are five things you need to know about the war this week:

House approved $40 billion in assistance for Ukraine

The House passed the $39.8 billion Ukrainian aid package on Tuesday in a 368-57 vote.

All 57 votes against the bill were Republicans, with those who opposed the measure citing the US’s national debt. Two Democrats and three Republicans did not vote.

The price tag for the bill approved by the lower chamber was well above the $33 billion in aid for Ukraine that President Biden requested late last month.

“The House took a critical step today in sending a clear, bipartisan message to Ukraine, to Russia, and to the world that the United States stands with the people of Ukraine as they defend their democracy against Russian aggression,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki wrote in a statement after the House approved the bill.

The package will “send more weapons, such as artillery, armored vehicles, and ammunition, to Ukraine” and help the US “replenish our stockpile and support US troops on NATO territory,” she said.

Rand Paul blocked quick passage of Ukraine aid in Senate

After the approved House bill was sent to the Senate, it was held up by an objection from Paul.

Paul blocked a deal put forward by Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (DN.Y.) and McConnell because he wanted to add language to the bill extending an Afghanistan inspector general role to include oversight for the aid to Ukraine.

Paul also warned about the pace of spending, saying, “we cannot save Ukraine by dooming the US economy.”

“Americans are feeling the pain [from inflation] and Congress seems intent only on adding to that pain by shoveling more money out the door as fast as they can,” he added.

The bill would have gone to the floor on Thursday but will now potentially be delayed for more than a week due to Paul.

McConnell, other Republican senators visit Ukraine

McConnell, along with Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine), John Cornyn (R-Texas and John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), traveled to Ukraine and met with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday.

“The visit of the US Senate led by Republican minority leader to the Upper House of Congress, Mitchell McConnell, is a powerful signal of bipartisan support for Ukraine from the United States Congress and the American people,” Zelensky said after the delegation was over .

The Republican visit comes after Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi (DN.Y.) and First Lady Jill Biden also made visits to the war-torn countries earlier in the month.

“It was inspiring to visit the historic capital of a beautiful country that has been forced to fight for its own survival,” McConnell said. “We saw firsthand the courage, unity, and resolve of the Ukrainian people. The Ukrainians are fighting bravely against a deranged invader and have already succeeded beyond skeptics’ wildest dreams. They are willing and determined to keep fighting to victory. Ukraine is not asking anybody else to fight their fight. They only ask for the tools they need for self-defense.”

The senators joined a growing list of officials, lawmakers and world leaders who have gone to Ukraine amid the ongoing conflict, as Zelensky has encouraged such visits.

Zelensky urged Biden to travel to Ukraine as well. US officials have said the president currently has no plans to do so.

Ukraine takes back villages, towns around Kharkiv

On Thursday, the United Kingdom’s defense ministry announced Ukraine had taken back villages and towns north of the city of Kharkiv that were previously occupied by Russian forces.

“Russia’s prioritization of operations in the Donbas has left elements deployed in the Kharkiv Oblast vulnerable to the mobile, and highly motivated, Ukrainian counter-attacking force,” the ministry said.

It added that after suffering major losses, Russia was withdrawing units from the area with the aim of reorganizing and replenishing its forces.

“The withdrawal of Russian forces from the Kharkiv Oblast is a tacit recognition of Russia’s inability to capture key Ukrainian cities where they expected limited resistance from the population,” the ministry said.

The development marks another for Russia, which previously failed to capture Kyiv in the opening weeks in the war and withdrew from the area around the Ukrainian capital to mount a renewed offensive in the country’s east.

Finland leaders says they want to join NATO, prompting Russian pushback

Finnish leaders this week called for the country to apply to join NATO “without delay,” prompting Russia to reiterate its opposition to such a move.

“NATO membership would strengthen Finland’s security. As a member of NATO, Finland would strengthen the entire defense alliance,” Finish President Sauli Niinistö and Prime Minister Sanna Marin said in a joint statement.

“Finland must apply for NATO membership without delay,” they said. “We hope that the national steps still needed to make this decision will be taken rapidly within the next few days.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin talked to Niinistö on Saturday, saying Finland should not apply for NATO membership, as its security is not threatened, and if it did so it could “negatively affect” Russian-Finnish relations.

Shortly after Russia invaded Ukraine, a Russian official said the country would go after Finland or Sweden if they pursued NATO membership.

“Finland and Sweden should not base their security on damaging the security of other countries and their accession to NATO can have detrimental consequences and face some military and political consequences,” Russian foreign ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova warned in February.

The Russian assault on Ukraine has pushed both Finland and Sweden to reconsider their absence from NATO, which commits members to defending one another if attacked.

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