U.S. Sens. Susan Collins and Angus King of Maine speak with a member of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division from Maine during a weekend trip to a refugee camp near the Poland-Ukraine border. Credit: Courtesy of the office of U.S. Sen. Angus King

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Two members of Maine’s congressional delegation called Russian President Vladimir Putin a war criminal after a trip that took them to refugee camps near Poland’s border with Ukraine.

The remarks from U.S. Sen. Susan Collins and U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree of Maine’s 1st District came after they joined bipartisan delegations on weekend trips to eastern Europe on the doorstep of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has led some 3 million Ukrainian refugees to flee the country under withering Russian attack.

The conflict seems to be developing into a war of attrition entering its fourth week. While Russia is hammering cities with long-range missiles, Putin’s ground troops are largely stalled amid strong Ukrainian resistance. He has chosen to only escalate the war in the face of Western sanctions that have tanked his country’s economy and made it into a virtual pariah state.

Maine’s congressional delegation has largely been in the Washington mainstream on Ukraine matters. All four members supported a ban on Russian oil imports before Biden imposed one this month. Collins, a Republican, and U.S. Sen. Angus King, an independent who caucuses with Democrats, co-sponsored a war crimes resolution that passed the Senate last week.

On their trip, Collins and Pingree called Putin a “war criminal,” a notable term that President Joe Biden began using last week after Russian strikes on a maternity hospital and residential buildings. In a video filmed at a refugee camp just a few miles from the border, Collins recounted meeting a mother headed to Wales with her two children while her husband stayed in Ukraine to fight.

“It’s an extraordinary moment, a very emotional one, very powerful scenes to see people with their cots on the floors,” said King, who also joined senators on the trip, in his own video. “But everybody is coming together here to support these refugees.”

Pingree, a Democrat, said on CNN that U.S. officials cannot prescribe the subjects of peace talks between Ukraine and Russia, which have made little progress during the shelling, and the American role is to support the government there. She said Putin should pull back and allow for humanitarian aid to get in.

The fourth week of fighting could be a pivotal one for Western aid to Ukraine. Biden is headed to a special NATO summit in Brussels on Thursday on the conflict after signing a spending bill with $13.6 billion in aid. He has stopped short of fulfilling other requests from President Volodymyr Zelenskyy,  including a no-fly zone, amid consensus in Washington that the U.S. should not escalate the conflict.

There are pressure points on the topic in Congress, however. Collins has joined other Republicans in pressing Biden to back a plan to send Polish warplanes and other equipment to Ukraine. Items like that could gain momentum as the conflict continues.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...