Battle for Mariupol back on after civilian convoy finally allowed out

Russian forces renewed their assault on the key Ukrainian port city of Mariupol on Sunday just hours after a convoy of civilian refugees was finally allowed to leave, as Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy greeted a U.S. congressional delegation headed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and accused the Kremlin of pursuing a “war of extermination.”

Ukrainian military officials told reporters in Kyiv on Sunday evening that Russian shelling had resumed at the giant steel plant which is the last bastion of Ukrainian forces in the strategic city, after the United Nations and Red Cross confirmed that the first groups of civilians fleeing the fighting had been allowed to leave.

Russian troops have struggled to secure full control of the city, which would free up forces and resources to join a building offensive in Ukraine’s eastern and southern region.

Kyiv officials say that more civilians and a detachment of Ukrainian troops remain in the Aztoval steel complex, even as the Russian shelling has resumed.

Russia’s defense ministry confirmed Sunday that its forces had also bombed an airfield in Odesa where U.S. and other foreign military aid was being unloaded, while also destroying two Ukrainian missile defense systems and damaging warehouses storing ammunition and fuel inside Ukraine.

Mr. Zelenskyy, in another defiant address to the country, said Sunday that Russia’s choice of targets to bomb was exposing the true motivation for the decision to invade Feb. 24, and said the brutality of the Kremlin’s war was quickly proving counterproductive.

SEE ALSO: Path forward for $33 billion Ukraine package muddled on Hill

Ukrainian officials over the weekend accused Russian forces of attempting to steal vast amounts of grain from the regions in the east and south that they control, a charge Moscow denied.

“The targets they choose prove once again that the war against Ukraine is a war of extermination for the Russian army,” Mr. Zelenskyy charged. “They targeted the warehouses of agricultural enterprises. The grain warehouse was destroyed. The warehouse with fertilizers was also shelled. They continued shelling of residential neighborhoods” in Kharkiv and the Donbas region.

“The ruined lives of people and the burned or stolen property will give nothing to Russia,” he added. “It will only increase the toxicity of the Russian state and the number of those in the world who will work to isolate Russia.”

There were an estimated 1,000 civilians holed up in Mariupol on Sunday. Mr. Zelenskyy said more evacuations could take place Monday, but only if conditions are right.

The first group of evacuees were taken to different locations, some in Ukrainian territory and others in territory now controlled by Russia and its Ukrainian allies, officials said.

U.S. lawmakers visit

SEE ALSO: USAID administrator warns of the war in Ukraine expanding into a global crisis

Mrs. Pelosi has become the most senior U.S. lawmaker to meet face-to-face with Mr. Zelenskyy since the invasion began, leading a congressional delegation on an unannounced visit to Kyiv over the weekend.

The California Democrat said Sunday the lawmakers discussed the need for continued assistance and delivered a message of unity in their meeting with Mr. Zelenskyy.

“Our delegation traveled to Kyiv to send an unmistakable and resounding message to the entire world: America stands firmly with Ukraine,” Mrs. Pelosi said in a statement Sunday.

Congress is poised to take up President Biden’s new request for an additional $33.4 billion in Ukraine aid from Congress, including $20 billion in security assistance, $8.5 billion in economic assistance, and $3 billion in humanitarian assistance.

The Biden administration has provided nearly $3.4 billion in assistance to Ukraine since the Russians invaded in late February.

The delegation included Democratic Reps. Gregory Meeks of New York, James McGovern and William Keating of Massachusetts, Adam Schiff and Barbara Lee of California, and Jason Crow of Colorado. Following their visit to Ukraine, the lawmakers continued to Poland where they met with President Andrzej Duda and senior officials.

“This is a time we stand up for democracy or we allow autocracy to rule the day,” Mr. Meeks, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told reporters in Poland on Sunday.

Mr. Crow, a member of the House Intelligence and Armed Services committees, stressed the importance of arming the Ukrainians and ensuring Russia is defeated.

“We have to make sure the Ukrainians have what they need to win,” Mr. Crow said. “What we have seen in the last two months is their ferocity, their intense pride, their ability to fight, and their ability to win if they have the support to do so.”

Congressional muddle

Despite strong bipartisan support for Ukraine on Capitol Hill, the way forward for the latest Ukraine-aid request remains muddled.

Democratic leaders have yet to settle on whether the aid will be combined with other spending priorities such as more money for pandemic relief. The Senate will be in session this week, but the House does not return until May 10 for an eight-day legislative session.

As the bill inches through Congress, the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee warned Sunday that “time is of the essence” to help Ukraine hold off its larger and better-armed neighbor in the expected coming offensive in the south and east.

“I don’t think we have a lot of time to waste in Congress,” Rep. Michael T. McCaul, Texas Republican, told ABC’s “This Week.” “Every day we don’t send them more weapons is a day where more people will be killed and a day where they could lose this war. I think they can win it, but we have to give them the tools to do it.”

Senate Democrats have considered pairing the emergency funding with a stalled $10 billion coronavirus package, which Republicans have so far declined to support.

Republicans have blocked consideration of the coronavirus legislation in a fight over the White House’s proposal to end Title 42, an emergency order using the pandemic health crisis to justify quickly expelling migrants from entering the U.S. from Mexico.

Mrs. Pelosi said last week that lawmakers would need to figure out how to quickly address both issues.

“We have emergencies here. We need to have the COVID money and time is of the essence because we need the Ukraine money,” the California Democrat said.

In an interview with CBS’s “Face the Nation” on Sunday, Sen. Tim Kaine, Virginia Democrat, said a decision on whether to link the two funding issues remained up in the air.

“The procedure of where you put bills together [or] separate them is quirky and sometimes unpredictable,” he said. “We need COVID aid. We need Ukraine aid. We should do them together or separately, but we shouldn’t wait around.”

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Robert Menendez, New Jersey Democrat, said Congress “will do what it takes” to ensure Ukraine has the funds it needs.

“It is about the international order,” Mr. Menendez told NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “If [Russian President Vladimir] Putin can ultimately not only succeed in the Donbas but then be emboldened maybe to go further, if he strikes a country under NATO, under our treaty obligations with NATO, then we would be directly engaged.”

And Rep. Adam Kinzinger, Illinois Republican, said U.S. lawmakers should start thinking about a direct U.S.-Russia confrontation if the crisis spins out of control, even though Mr. Biden and leaders of NATO have adamantly ruled out Western troops taking part in the war.

Mr. Kinzinger compared the current situation in Ukraine to pre-World War II and said while the U.S. should continue to work to contain the ongoing war, it should also be prepared to respond in the event of a Russian escalation.

“If Vladimir Putin wants to escalate with the West, he will,” Mr. Kinzinger told CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “It’s easy for him to do it. And I think right now what we’re doing with supply and with lend-lease, with the financing, is right.”

“You know … prior to World War II, there were moments nobody ever wanted to get involved and eventually came to realize they had to,” he said. “I hope we don’t get to that point here, but we should be ready if we do.”

Russia stumbling

Separately, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov for the first time explicitly denied growing fears in the West that the Putin government was pressing for a major military breakthrough in Ukraine in time for the annual May 9 Victory Day celebrations in Moscow celebrating Russia’s military and its role in the defeat of Nazi Germany.

“Our soldiers won’t base their actions on a specific date,” the veteran Russian diplomat told an Italian television interviewer Sunday.

“We’ll commemorate our victory in a solemn manner, but the timing and speed of what is happening in Ukraine will hinge on the need to minimize risks for civilians and Russian soldiers,” he added, speaking in Russian through an Italian interpreter.

In another sign that the invasion has proven unexpectedly difficult for Mr. Putin and the Russian military, Ukrainian officials said over the weekend that one of Mr. Putin’s most senior defense aides, military Chief of Staff Gen. Valery Gerasimov, made an unpublicized visit to the front lines of the fighting in eastern Ukraine to assess the situation and “change the course” of the fighting, the New York Times reported.

There were even reports that the general or other senior Russian officials had been wounded by a Ukrainian missile strike during the dangerous visit, but they could not be confirmed.

— Haris Alic contributed to this article, which was based in part on wire-service reports.

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