WASHINGTON – Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said Sunday that Finland and Sweden would be “important additions” to NATO as he led a delegation of GOP senators to the region in a show of support against Russia's aggression.
McConnell also called on President Joe Biden to designate Russia as state sponsor of terrorism over its invasion of Ukraine.
Speaking to reporters from Stockholm, McConnell said that Finland and Sweden, unlike some members of the Western alliance, would likely be in a position to pay their NATO obligations and would offer significant military capabilities.
“They will be important additions to NATO, if they choose to join,” he said, adding, ”I think the United States ought to be first in line to ratify the treaty for both these countries to join.”
McConnell is a longtime NATO supporter, and his trip to the Nordic nations with Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, John Barrasso of Wyoming and John Cornyn of Texas follows their surprise stop Saturday in Ukraine's capital to express solidarity in the fight against the Kremlin.
McConnell was in Sweden while leading diplomats from the 30 NATO member states met in Berlin to discuss providing more support to Ukraine and moves by Finland, Sweden and others to join NATO in the face of threats from Russia.
Several hours after Finland’s announcement that it would seek to join NATO, Sweden’s governing party also endorsed becoming an alliance member, a move that could lead to the country’s application within days.
The office of Finland’s president, Sauli Niinisto, said the American lawmakers will meet with the president to discuss Finland’s NATO membership, the Ukraine war and other issues. McConnell’s office confirmed the visit.
But NATO-member Turkey is “not favorable” toward those two additions, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Friday, complicating the move to bolster the alliance as a deterrent to Russia.
The high-level meetings comes as the Congress is working 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 financing to help Ukraine and NATO allies build up their militaries.
The latest round of assistance would push U.S. support to Ukraine beyond $50 billion, which has raised concerns from some conservative Republicans in the party's isolationist wing wary of the price of overseas spending. The measure stalled in the Senate over the objection of Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., but McConnell is determined to see that it passes in the coming week.
“We'll get the job done,” McConnell told reporters on a conference call.
McConnell said it is in America's interest to support Ukraine as he brushed aside criticism from some fellow Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, about the level of spending. It's a a reemergence of the isolationist “America First” approach to foreign policy by a faction of the Republican Party.
McConnell said he told Zelenskyy that there is vast bipartisan support in Congress for helping Ukraine. “This is not a charity we’re involved in here,” McConnell said. “This is to prevent this group of thugs from beginning a march through through Europe."
Asked about a resolution introduced in the Senate designating Russia a state sponsor of terror, McConnell said he supports it. But he also said Biden could declare that on his own, without congressional action.
“I would encourage him to do it,” McConnell told reporters.
McConnell could not say whether the latest aid package would be the last before the November elections. The spending on Ukraine has been a simmering campaign issue for some Republican candidates.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who already pushed the aid through the House with bipartisan votes, said on CNN's “State of the Union” about the Senate Republicans: “They couldn’t pass the Ukraine bill with the senators going over to Ukraine empty-handed with a promise. We passed the bill."
Zelensky, in his nightly video address Saturday after meeting with the Republicans, said he believed that the senators' trip showed "the strong connection between the Ukrainian and American people. We discussed various areas of support for our country, including defense and finance, as well as strengthening sanctions against Russia.”
It was the second high-profile 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 done.”
First lady Jill Biden visited western Ukraine last weekend for a Mother’s Day meeting with Zelenskyy's wife, Olena Zelenska.
Associated Press writer Jari Tanner in Helsinki contributed to this report.