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Susan M. Collins represents Maine in the U.S. Senate.
Clad in his hallmark greenish-brown short-sleeved polo shirt, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy recently greeted our small Senate delegation warmly as he ushered us into a building in Kyiv for a two-hour discussion over a traditional Ukrainian lunch of primarily beet dishes such as borscht. Our journey from Washington to Ukraine was very long, under cover of darkness and cloaked in secrecy, but we wanted to learn more from this exceptional leader and affirm our support for additional aid to Ukraine, which was being debated on the Senate floor.
We discussed the military, humanitarian and economic consequences of Russia’s unprovoked, brutal war against Ukraine. Let me emphasize that Zelenskyy was not asking for American boots on the ground but rather for continued military equipment and humanitarian aid from us and our allies so that his people can continue to fight Russian aggression.
The will of the Ukrainian people to fight the much-better armed Russians is strong and bolstered by the inspiring leadership of Zelenskyy. Russian President Vladimir Putin assumed that he could capture the Ukrainian capital in days, but the Ukrainians fiercely repelled his advances, forcing him to move his forces to the eastern and southern parts of the country.
Yet, the war is clearly taking a toll. Six million Ukrainians have been forced to flee their country, nearly 3.5 million taken in by the Polish people who are giving them safe haven. Another 8 million within Ukraine have had to leave their homes, often sheltering in basements, factories and schools, in some cases deprived of electricity and short of food, clean water and medical supplies. Who can forget or forgive Putin for the bombing of a theater with a shelter in the basement that had the word “children” written in large letters outside to alert the Russians. Zelenskyy told us 95 percent of the buildings in Mariupol, including a maternity hospital, have been destroyed by incessant and indiscriminate Russian shelling.
Both the indomitable spirit as well as the stress on the Ukrainian people were evident during our visit. Seeing my U.S. and Ukrainian flags lapel pin, a woman with tears in her eyes pointed to my pin, said “thank you,” and gave me a hug. She then made the sign of the cross, and raised her eyes to heaven, saying a brief prayer.
At our meeting with Zelenskyy, I asked about the Russian blockade of Odessa, a major port used for shipping wheat, barley and other grains grown in Ukraine. If this Black Sea port remains blocked, the consequences are dire. Devastation for the Ukrainian economy and hunger in countries across the world dependent on Ukrainian grain are just two of the ominous consequences.
Zelenskyy replied that the Ukrainians had to mine the harbor to prevent the Russian ships from coming ashore, but that what he really needed were multiple launch rocket systems and other longer-range, heavy weapons to counter this threat and allow shipping to resume.
Brave farmers wearing armored vests are planting the spring crop, but unless the grain stored in silos is shipped, there will be nowhere to store it, and they will not be paid for their winter crop.
The humanitarian efforts underway in Ukraine are impressive but the need is overwhelming. Recently, I had conversations with U.S. Agency for International Development Administrator Samantha Power, David Beardsley of the World Food Bank, Gregory Slayton of the Fellowship of Families and famed chef Jose Andres whose World Central Kitchen has cooks from many states, including Maine, working to feed Ukrainian refugees in welcome centers and in shelters. These public-private partnerships are saving lives, and with congressional passage of the humanitarian and military aid package last week, more assistance will be speeding on its way.
I asked Zelenskyy whether he thought Putin’s attack on his country had had the opposite effect of what he had intended. For example, the Russian-speaking sections of Eastern Ukraine are now embracing their Ukrainian identity, and NATO is more united than ever. The decisions of Sweden and Finland to abandon their stance of neutrality and apply to be in NATO are directly the result of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The president agreed that Putin’s war of aggression not only had been the opposite of the easy conquest that he had expected, but also had strengthened the NATO alliance and the European Union.
After our time in Ukraine, we traveled to Sweden and Finland where we met with the prime ministers and with the Finnish president. The decision of these countries to abandon neutrality — in the case of Sweden 200 years of this policy — demonstrates Putin’s massive miscalculation. As Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson put it, “Feb. 24 [the date of the invasion] changed everything.”
Finland has sent four tranches of military and other aid to Ukraine. The Finnish president took us outside his home and pointed to his right where Tallinn, Estonia, is only 50 miles away across the Baltic Sea. He then pointed to his left and told us that St. Petersburg, Russia, is only 200 miles away. Finland shares an 830-mile border with Russia, and the last thing that Putin wants is a NATO member along 830 miles of its border.
The next step is for the U.S. Senate to ratify NATO membership for Sweden and Finland as quickly as possible to send a strong message to Russia and to continue our support for the Ukrainians.
Putin has made little secret of his desire to dominate free and independent democracies to recreate the former Soviet Union. If he succeeds in Ukraine, that will be just the beginning. He must not be allowed to succeed.