House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made an unannounced visit to Kyiv this weekend, leading a small Democratic delegation to reaffirm the United States’ support for Ukraine and becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the besieged country since the start of Russia’s invasion.
There was also some hope glimmering in other regions. Russian forces have reduced the intensity of their strikes on the embattled eastern city of Kharkiv, a local official said Sunday, though residents were still warned not to go outside.
In Kyiv, Pelosi ventured outside with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on Saturday, photos and videos released afterward showed. Pelosi, clad in a blue suit reminiscent of the color on the Ukrainian flag, greeted Zelensky and other top Ukrainian officials on an empty Kyiv street.
Pelosi vowed that the United States would support Ukraine “until the fight is done.” In a statement, she described the trip as a “solemn opportunity and extraordinary honor.”
Zelensky thanked the United States for “helping to protect the sovereignty and territorial integrity” of Ukraine and for the show of solidarity.
Other members of the Democratic House delegation included Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Gregory W. Meeks (N.Y.), Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern (Mass.), and Reps. Barbara Lee (Calif.), William R. Keating (Mass.) and Jason Crow (Colo.).
“I am grateful to you for this signal, this signal of strong support for Ukraine, support of the U.S., support of the people of the U.S., of Congress, the support of two houses [of Congress] and two parties,” Zelensky told Pelosi during the meeting.
During a news conference in Poland on Sunday, Keating said the lawmakers have heard “appalling” claims about the brutality faced by Ukrainian people during the war, including accounts of rape and human trafficking at the hands of Russian soldiers.
Pelosi called on Congress to approve President Biden’s request for an additional $33 billion in military, economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, and she urged the United States and its allies not to back down from Russian President Vladimir Putin, whom she called a bully.
“Do not be bullied by bullies. If they’re making threats, you cannot back down. That’s my view of it,” Pelosi said. “You cannot fold to a bully.”
Biden has said it is crucial for Congress to swiftly approve the new funding request, which includes $20 billion in military assistance, $8.5 billion to bolster Ukraine’s economy and $3 billion in humanitarian aid.
“The cost of this fight is not cheap, but caving to aggression is going to be more costly if we allow it to happen,” Biden said Thursday as he announced the spending package.
Both Pelosi and Lee, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, said Congress would move forward on the Ukraine security package “soon” but did not specify a timeline. Lee said that lawmakers are in the process of writing the bill and that negotiations on it “are taking place as we speak.”
Pelosi acknowledged that Congress was also simultaneously working on legislation for additional funding for the U.S. coronavirus pandemic response, and she said it remained to be seen whether the two packages will be linked.
“Our Members were proud to deliver the message [to Ukrainian officials] that additional American support is on the way, as we work to transform President Biden’s strong funding request into a legislative package,” Pelosi said in a statement after her trip to Ukraine and Poland.
Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Tex.), the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, noted the House is not in session this week and said the next two to three weeks will be “pivotal” for the war in Ukraine.
“I don’t think we have a lot of time to waste in Congress,” McCaul said on ABC’s “This Week.” He added: “Every day we don’t send [Ukraine] 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.”
The White House confirmed Sunday that Biden spoke with Pelosi after her visit to Ukraine, but it did not provide further details about their conversation. On Tuesday, Biden is scheduled to travel to Alabama to tour a Lockheed Martin facility that manufactures Javelin antitank missiles and other weapons the United States has been sending to Ukraine.
On “This Week,” Oksana Markarova, the Ukrainian ambassador to the United States, said Pelosi’s meeting with Zelensky in Kyiv was yet another sign of “very, very strong support” for Ukraine in the face of Russian aggression — and restated, as she has for weeks, that Ukrainians would not surrender.
“As this war was started by Russians, it has to be ended by Russians. And we really hope that they will make their decision faster,” Markarova said. She added: “We need to restore the territorial integrity and the sovereignty of our country. And we owe it to the people who bravely defend our country and to the people who’ve fallen defending our country.”
The United Nations confirmed Sunday that an operation to evacuate civilians from the Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol was underway. Thousands of Ukrainian troops have been hunkered down in the factory, refusing to surrender despite increasingly dire conditions and Russian airstrikes that have pummeled the complex in recent days.
New satellite images show numerous buildings flattened at the sprawling complex, which also has a vast underground network of tunnels that have provided shelter to civilians and troops alike. The plant was once one of the largest metallurgical factories in Europe, pumping out more than 4 million tons of crude steel annually and employing tens of thousands of people.
Ukrainian officials say that up to 1,000 civilians have also sought refuge at the Azovstal plant since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began more than two months ago. For weeks, calls for Russia to open humanitarian corridors to allow safe passage for civilians out of the steel plant, as well as other parts of Mariupol, have been unsuccessful.
But on Friday night, a U.N. convoy left the city of Zaporizhzhia, about 140 miles northwest of Mariupol, and arrived at the plant Saturday morning to begin the evacuations. A group of 20 to 25 women and children were evacuated Saturday under a cease-fire agreement.
Zelensky confirmed Sunday that the first group of more than 100 people from the plant was headed to “Ukrainian-controlled” territory. He said he would meet with the evacuees in Zaporizhzhia on Monday.
It was the first time since Russia’s invasion began, he added, that there had been a “real cease-fire on this territory” to allow a humanitarian corridor to work. Zelensky said he hoped the evacuation from the Azovstal steel plant would continue on Monday, starting at 8 a.m. local time.
The safe-passage operation is being carried out in collaboration with the International Committee of the Red Cross and in coordination with Ukrainian and Russian officials. Saviano Abreu, a spokesman for the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, told The Washington Post on Sunday afternoon that efforts to get people out of the industrial complex were “still on track and ongoing.”
Abreu described the operation as “extremely complex and risky.” He declined to offer more details about the number of civilians successfully evacuated because, he said, it could “jeopardize the operation” and put the safety of civilians and U.N. workers at risk.
On Sunday, the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry praised the efforts of the groups involved in the evacuation but emphasized that hundreds of civilians, including dozens of children, were still waiting to be rescued from the steel plant.
“The evacuation gives a chance to civilians, in particular mothers and children, to restore normal lives and receive proper treatment,” the ministry wrote on Twitter.
In addition, hundreds of wounded Ukrainian soldiers in urgent need of lifesaving treatment also remained at the plant, the ministry noted, calling for those troops to also be allowed to immediately evacuate “in accordance with international humanitarian law.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross, which also confirmed Sunday that the rescue operation was underway, said in a statement to The Post that “no more details can be shared until the situation allows.”
According to the BBC, the commander of a national guard brigade, Denis Schlega, said at least 500 wounded soldiers and several hundred civilians are inside the plant. Schlega pleaded for their evacuation, as well as the removal of the bodies of deceased fighters.
“We initiated this evacuation. We want around 500 more wounded soldiers to leave this area, and for our dead boys to be picked up. We’re going to stay here and continue our mission until the end,” the commander said.
The Mariupol City Council said in a statement on Telegram that, due to security reasons, the evacuation of civilians from other parts of Mariupol was postponed until Monday morning. Residents of Mariupol had earlier been advised to try to evacuate Sunday afternoon, with mayoral adviser Petro Andryushchenko calling it “one of the last real chances to leave the city.”
In a statement sent to The Post on Sunday, the United Nations said it will continue to push for safe evacuations for all civilians — not only those inside the plant — who wish to leave Mariupol. Mariupol has seen some of the worst devastation since the war began. Ukrainian authorities have estimated that at least 20,000 people have been killed and more than 300,000 of the city’s 450,000 residents have fled.
“What could be Russia’s strategic success in this war? Honestly, I do not know,” Zelensky said in his statement Sunday. “The ruined lives of people and the burned or stolen property will give nothing to Russia. It will only increase the toxicity of the Russian state and the number of those in the world who will work to isolate Russia.”
Lateshia Beachum, Annabelle Timsit, Bryan Pietsch, Adam Taylor, Rachel Pannett and Douglas MacMillan contributed to this report.