McConnell backs Finland and Sweden’s NATO membership during stopover in Europe

WASHINGTON (AP) — Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday that Finland and Sweden would be “significant additions” to NATO as he led a delegation of GOP senators to the region to show his support. support against Russian aggression.

McConnell also called on President Joe Biden to designate Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism following his invasion of Ukraine.

Speaking to reporters in Stockholm, McConnell said Finland and Sweden, unlike some members of the Western alliance, would likely be able to pay their NATO obligations and offer significant military capabilities.

“They will be important additions to NATO, if they choose to join,” he said, adding: “I think the United States should be the first to ratify the treaty so that these two countries join them”.

READ MORE: Finland says it will seek NATO membership as Sweden prepares to follow suit

McConnell is a longtime supporter of NATO, and his trip to the Nordic countries with the Sens Republicans. Susan Collins of Maine, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Cornyn of Texas follows their surprise stop Saturday in the Ukrainian capital to express their solidarity in the fight against the Kremlin.

McConnell was in Sweden as top diplomats from NATO’s 30 member states met in Berlin to discuss increased support for Ukraine and steps taken by Finland, Sweden and others to join the NATO in the Face of Russian Threats.

Several hours after Finland announced it would seek to join NATO, Sweden’s ruling party also approved its membership in the alliance, a move that could lead to the country’s candidacy within days.

Finnish President Sauli Niinisto’s office said US lawmakers would meet with the president to discuss Finland’s NATO membership, the war in Ukraine and other issues. McConnell’s office confirmed the visit.

But NATO member Turkey is “not in favor” of either addition, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Friday, complicating the decision to strengthen the alliance as a deterrent to Russia.

The high-level meetings come as Congress moves to approve $40 billion in military aid to Ukraine, a substantial infusion of support for the region. The measure includes $6 billion for Ukraine for intelligence, equipment and training for its forces, plus $4 billion in funding to help Ukraine and NATO allies build up their armies.

READ MORE: Western officials say Russia is losing momentum as war in Ukraine continues

The latest round of aid would push US support for Ukraine past $50 billion, raising concerns among some conservative Republicans in the party’s isolationist wing, wary of the price tag of spending on Ukraine. foreign. The measure stalled in the Senate over the objection of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., but McConnell is determined to see it pass in the coming week.

“We’ll get the job done,” McConnell told reporters on a conference call.

McConnell said it was in the United States’ interest to support Ukraine as he dismissed criticism from some of his Republican colleagues, including former President Donald Trump, over the level of spending. It is a re-emergence of the isolationist “America First” approach to foreign policy by one faction of the Republican Party.

McConnell said he told Zelenskyy there was broad bipartisan support in Congress to help Ukraine. “It’s not a charity that we’re involved with here,” McConnell said. “It’s to stop this group of thugs from starting a march across Europe.”

Asked about a resolution introduced in the Senate designating Russia as a state sponsor of terrorism, McConnell said he supported it. But he also said Biden could declare that on his own, without congressional action.

“I would encourage him to do that,” McConnell told reporters.

McConnell could not say whether the latest aid package would be the last before the November election. Spending in Ukraine has been a simmering campaign issue for some Republican candidates.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has already pushed through the House with bipartisan votes, said on CNN’s “State of the Union” about Senate Republicans: “They couldn’t pass the Ukraine bill with senators going to Ukraine empty-handed with a promise. We passed the bill.

Zelensky, in his Saturday night video address after meeting Republicans, said he thought the senators’ trip showed “the strong bond between the Ukrainian and American peoples.” We discussed various areas of support for our country, including defense and finance, as well as the strengthening of sanctions against Russia.

This was the second high-level Congressional delegation to stop in Ukraine in as many weeks. Pelosi visited on May 1 with a group of House Democrats and promised Zelenskyy that the United States “will be there for you until the fight is over.”

First Lady Jill Biden traveled to western Ukraine last weekend for a Mother’s Day reunion with Zelenskyy’s wife, Olena Zelenska.

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Associated Press writer Jari Tanner in Helsinki contributed to this report.