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McConnell leads GOP visit to Kyiv; Mariupol rescue talks 'difficult'

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Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelensky, center, poses for a picture in Kyiv with, from left, Sen. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.). (Ukrainian Presidential Press Ser/Via Reuters)

By Julian Duplain

Victoria Bisset

Updated May 14, 2022 at 10:44 p.m. EDT|Published

May 14, 2022 at 12:35 a.m. EDT

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky welcomed a delegation of Republican senators led by Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) to Kyiv on Saturday, praising the visit as "a strong signal of bipartisan support for Ukraine."

The other GOP senators visible in a video, which shows Zelensky greeting them on a Kyiv street, were John Barrasso (Wyo.), Susan Collins (Maine) and John Cornyn (Tex.). Though the Senate has been delayed in approving nearly $40 billion in additional funding for Ukraine, Zelensky said he was looking forward to "the United States' support for further sanctions."

Russia's foreign minister, meanwhile, characterized Western support for Ukraine as a "total hybrid war" against Moscow. The wide-ranging sanctions directed against Russia would have long-lasting consequences, Sergei Lavrov said in a speech.

In Mariupol, another round of evacuees left the city after waiting for three days. The Azovstal steel plant continues to be bombarded, Ukrainian fighters said, as Ukrainian officials negotiate with Russia to evacuate 60 medics and "seriously wounded" people. Zelensky described the negotiations as "very difficult" late Friday.

Here's what else to know

Calls grow for Russia to free up Ukrainian ports for grain exports

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Foreign ministers from the Group of Seven nations appealed to Russia to free up sea export routes for Ukrainian grain and agricultural products critical to feeding the world, as food prices rise and the World Food Program warns of "catastrophic" consequences if Ukrainian ports remain blocked.

"We must not be naive. Russia has now expanded the war against Ukraine to many states as a war of grain," German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said at a news conference Saturday after the G-7 meetings. "It is not collateral damage, it is an instrument in a hybrid war that is intended to weaken cohesion against Russia's war."

Baerbock, who hosted the three-day gathering of top diplomats in Weissenhaus, Germany, said the group was searching for alternative routes to transport grain out of Ukraine as the threat of a global hunger crisis mounts.

McConnell leads Senate GOP delegation to Kyiv, meets Zelensky

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with a U.S. Senate delegation led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Saturday in Kyiv, calling the visit "a powerful signal of bipartisan support for Ukraine from the U.S. Congress and the American people," his presidential office said.

In a video posted by Politico journalist Christopher Miller, McConnell and fellow Republican Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), John Barrasso (Wyo.) and John Cornyn (Tex.) were greeted by Zelensky on a Kyiv street.

"Russia is committing genocide against the Ukrainian people," Zelensky said in a news release announcing the senators' visit. "Europe has not seen such crimes since World War II."

He noted "the special role of the United States" in ramping up sanctions on Russia and said he looked forward to further sanctions on Russia's banking sector. "In addition, we believe that Russia should be officially recognized as a state sponsor of terrorism," Zelensky said.

He also expressed hope that the U.S. Senate would quickly approve a nearly $40 billion package of additional funding for Ukraine. On Thursday, Sen. Rand Paul, McConnell's fellow Kentucky Republican in the chamber, delayed passage of the bill; he was the lone holdout on a motion to quickly pass the measure. The bill will be up for full Senate debate in the coming week.

On Saturday evening, McConnell called the visit "inspiring."

"Ukraine is not asking anybody else to fight their fight," he said in a statement. "They only ask for the tools they need for self-defense."

World leaders react to Ukraine's Eurovision win

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World leaders were quick to respond to the victory by the Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra at the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday, a win that gives Ukraine the right to host the hugely popular spectacle in 2023.

Ukraine's government tweeted on its official account: "you have melted our hearts, friends" adding that the win "matters the world to us during this time."

Here's how the world has responded:

European Council President Charles Michel congratulated the Ukrainian band on Twitter and expressed hope that next year's contest can be hosted by Kyiv in a "free and united Ukraine."

British Foreign Minister Liz Truss described it as a "great result" — even as the fan vote bumped her country's entry into the second spot in a competition that more typically evokes a strong sense of patriotism among die-hard fans.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted that the win "is a clear reflection of not just your talent, but of the unwavering support for your fight for freedom."

"Our courage impresses the world, our music conquers Europe!" wrote Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on his official Telegram channel.

Next year, Ukraine is expected to host the competition, an occasion Zelensky said he believed won't be the last. The president expressed hope that one day Kyiv could "host the participants and guests of Eurovision in Ukrainian Mariupol" — the southern port city shattered by Russian forces.

Ukraine wins Eurovision song contest

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At the end of their performance in Europe's most popular song contest, the Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra, hands to their hearts, made a passionate plea.

"I ask for all of you," frontman Oleh Psiuk said, "please help Ukraine, Mariupol. Help Azovstal right now."

Then the voters helped the band to victory.

Kalush Orchestra, which made it to Saturday's grand final of this year's Eurovision, a flamboyant performance watched by nearly 200 million people, won with their performance of the folk-rap mash-up "Stefania" after a massive audience vote propelled them to victory.

The band was one of 25 acts that competed in the last round of Eurovision, the world's longest-running televised music competition, which draws on votes from viewers and once helped launch Abba. Kalush Orchestra was one of the most-watched on YouTube among this year's 40 national entries and was invited to the show in Turin, Italy.

Ukraine bans pro-Russian political parties

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky signed a law Saturday banning pro-Russian political parties amid the Russian invasion.

The legislation is the latest effort by the Ukrainian government to limit the involvement of politicians favoring the invaders. In March, Zelensky announced a ban on 11 political parties with ties to Russia, including the Opposition Platform-For Life, led by Viktor Medvedchuk, a businessman with personal ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The law expands the grounds for banning a political party to include calling the invasion of Ukraine a civil conflict and glorifying Russian aggression against Ukraine.

Russia denies that the war is contributing to global food crisis

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After German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock blamed Russia for contributing to the international hunger crisis, Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova responded on Saturday by blaming the historic sanctions on Russia for rising food prices.

In a Telegram post, Zakharova claimed without evidence that the food crisis stems from the collapse of statehood of Ukraine, one of the world's most important grain producers. The collapse is also something the Kremlin official said the West was responsible for.

"If you don't understand that, it's either a sign of stupidity or deliberately misleading the public," she wrote to Baerbock.

The Russian official's comments came as Group of Seven leaders warned Saturday that the war is fueling a food crisis affecting poor countries. Baerbock, who called the situation a "global crisis," said that up to 50 million people, mainly in Africa and the Middle East, would face a significant food shortage unless there was a way to release the grain from Ukraine to the world. The G-7 echoed her sentiments in a statement.

"Russia's war of aggression has generated one of the most severe food and energy crises in recent history which now threatens those most vulnerable across the globe," the group said.

More than $1B needed to rebuild hospitals, Ukrainian official says

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Ukrainian Health Minister Viktor Lyashko said Saturday that 32 billion hryvnias, or more than $1 billion, was needed to help rebuild the hospitals damaged or destroyed by Russia during the invasion.

More than 600 medical institutions in Ukraine have been damaged by Russian forces since late February, Lyashko said at a telethon, including 101 facilities that were destroyed. He added that 375 pharmacies in the country had been destroyed, according to Interfax.

"Therefore, according to preliminary estimates, 32 billion hryvnias are needed to restore these hospitals," he said.

The health minister vowed that Ukraine would rebuild a medical system "that meets European requirements to ensure access to health care for all at their place of residence." He said that "expert and political level of discussions" on how to rebuild medical institutions in the Kyiv region had been completed and that other discussions on restoring the institutions in Sumy and Chernihiv Oblasts were underway, Interfax reported.

"We are determining which hospitals in a certain district should be, which departments they should have, what material and technical base they should have, and we will equip and restore them immediately in this direction," he said.

Turkey proposes evacuation plan for wounded fighters at Azovstal plant

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Turkey has proposed carrying out evacuations of hundreds of wounded fighters trapped in the besieged Azovstal steel plant in Mariupol, a spokesman for Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said Saturday.

Ibrahim Kalin, Erdogan's top foreign policy adviser, told Reuters that an evacuation plan he recently discussed with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky was "on the table." As part of the plan, which he said Russia has not agreed to, evacuees from the steel plant would be transported to the port of Berdyansk and then picked up by a Turkish vessel that would take them to Istanbul.

"If it can be done that way, we are happy to do it. We are ready," Kalin said. "In fact our ship is ready to go and bring the injured soldiers and other civilians to Turkey."

Turkey has been evaluating the plan since last month, when Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar said the country was exerting "significant efforts for the evacuation of all civilians struggling in Ukraine, including Turkish citizens," according to the pro-Turkish newspaper the Daily Sabah.

Ukrainian officials are continuing to negotiate with Russia to evacuate 60 medics and "seriously wounded" people from the besieged Azovstal steel plant, Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said Saturday.

Kalin's remarks came one day after Erdogan voiced skepticism about Sweden and Finland potentially joining the NATO defense alliance, a sign of dissension in efforts to revamp Europe's security architecture after Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

How to watch Eurovision Song Contest and the Ukrainian band favored to win

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As Europe prepares for the final of its most popular song contest on Saturday, a Ukrainian folk-rap group may give Ukraine a reason to celebrate amid the Russian invasion.

When Ukrainian band Kalush Orchestra takes the stage in Turin, Italy, its members will have more eyeballs than ever on them at a time when the war back home has reached 80 days. Oddsmakers have placed the group as the favorite to come out on top.

For fans in the United States hoping to catch up on the excitement, the grand final starts at 3 p.m. Eastern time Saturday on the streaming service Peacock. Johnny Weir, one of NBC's lead figure skating analysts and a media darling during the Winter Olympics, will be providing commentary.

"Sing along, enjoy the show," Weir said in a Twitter video hours before the grand final. "I can't wait!"

The West has declared 'total hybrid war' on Russia, Lavrov claims

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov claimed Saturday that the West has declared a "total hybrid war" against Russia during its invasion of Ukraine.

In a speech on the 80th day of the invasion, Lavrov said the support given to Ukraine by Western powers, and the historic, wide-ranging sanctions leveled against Russia, would have a lasting impact on the world.

"The collective West has declared total hybrid war on us, and it is hard to predict how long all this will last, but it is clear the consequences will be felt by everyone, without exception," he said. "We have done everything we can to avoid a direct clash, but the challenge has been thrown to us, so we accepted it. We have always been under sanctions, so we are used to them."

Lavrov made the remarks a day after Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba urged Group of Seven countries to turn over seized Russian assets to Kyiv to help pay for the reconstruction of the billions of dollars' worth of infrastructure that Moscow has destroyed.

Acknowledging Ukraine's support from the global community, Lavrov claimed Saturday that Ukraine was "an instrument or tool to constrain Russia's peaceful development."

Another batch of civilians evacuated from Mariupol

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Hundreds of cars filled with evacuees have left Mariupol, bound for another city about 140 miles northwest after days of disruption, an official in the embattled port city said.

"A huge convoy of cars with Mariupol residents (from 500 to 1,000 cars), who had been waiting for more than three days, was finally allowed to head to Zaporizhzhia," wrote Petro Andriushchenko, an adviser to Mariupol's mayor.

The evacuation of civilians has been fraught, with Ukrainian officials frequently accusing Russian forces of interfering with the humanitarian corridors the evacuees are meant to use to reach safety. A steelworks plant serving as Ukrainians' last holdout in the city continues to face bombardment, according to the Azov Regiment defending the complex.

About 600 injured people are still at the Azovstal steel complex, without water, food or medicine, a Donetsk regional police officer told the Mariupol site mrpl.city. Most are sleeping on the floor, and conditions are unsanitary, the officer said.

India bans wheat exports as war in Ukraine sends global prices soaring

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NEW DELHI — After Russia invaded Ukraine — two countries that together accounted for nearly a third of the world's wheat supply — this year and sent food prices to record highs, India was supposed to step in to fill the void. Not anymore.

The world's second-largest wheat producer on Friday banned exports of the grain amid its own food security concerns, potentially exacerbating the steep rise in global food prices that is affecting billions of people and threatening food security around the world.

In a commerce ministry order, Indian officials said they made the decision after considering India's own needs and those of its neighboring countries. India's food security was "at risk" due to surging international prices, the ministry said.

The announcement marked an abrupt reversal weeks after Indian officials and international analysts talked up the possibility of India significantly ratcheting up exports to fill the gap created partly by the war in Ukraine. International food prices have soared to record highs in recent months, putting pressure on billions of people, particularly the world's poorest, United Nations officials have warned.

Turkey 'not closing the door' to Sweden, Finland in NATO, official says

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Turkey does not firmly oppose granting NATO membership to Sweden and Finland but wants the suppression of what it characterizes as terrorist activities in the Nordic nations, the Turkish president's spokesman told Reuters.

"We are not closing the door. But we are basically raising this issue as a matter of national security for Turkey," Ibrahim Kalin, a spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, told the news agency.

Erdogan has expressed concern about Sweden's willingness to host members of the Kurdistan Workers' Party, which has fought an insurrection against Turkey for decades. The group is considered a terrorist organization by Turkey and the United States.

Austin asks Russian defense minister for cease-fire in Ukraine

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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin urged his Russian counterpart Friday to consider a cease-fire in Ukraine during the first discussion between the two leaders since the Russian invasion began nearly three months ago, the Pentagon said.

Austin had not connected with Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu since Feb. 18 — six days before Russia commenced its assault on Ukraine — despite repeated attempts by U.S. officials to do so, said a senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon. The two men spoke for about an hour, and the official characterized their conversation as "professional" but declined to detail what was said.

"It wasn't for lack of trying that we hadn't been able to establish" communications, the official said. "We've been consistently asking for this conversation, and Minister Shoigu assented for a call this week. But what motivated them to change their minds and be open to it, I don't think we know for sure."

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