• The San Juan Daily Star

Russia seeks greater control of southeastern Ukraine

A photograph taken during a trip organized by the Russian Defense Ministry showing Russian soldiers in a destroyed part of a Mariupol factory on Wednesday.

By Dan Bilefsky and Catie Edmondson

As Moscow on Thursday projected control over southeastern Ukraine in a possible prelude to annexing the region, the Senate approved a $40 billion emergency military and humanitarian aid package for Ukraine, underlining the U.S.’ resolve to help support the increasingly costly and grinding war against Russia.

The package will bring the total U.S. investment in the war to roughly $54 billion in just over two months and allow for the speedy transfer of weapons, equipment and defense supplies to Ukraine. The Biden administration and Ukrainian leaders had warned that Ukraine would run out of aid by Thursday if Congress failed to act.

The relatively smooth passage of the package reflected how disturbing images of Ukrainian suffering, coupled with fears of Russia seeking to expand its sphere of influence beyond Ukraine’s borders, have overcome opposition from both parties to America financing a bloody conflict abroad.

Approval of the aid package comes at a critical time. As hundreds more Ukrainian fighters in the southern port city of Mariupol surrendered to Russia on Thursday, Moscow moved to exert its hegemony over southeastern Ukraine, where a high-ranking official declared that seized parts of the region would “take a worthy place in our Russian family.”

The visit this week by a deputy Russian prime minister, Marat Khusnullin, to the occupied city of Melitopol suggested that the Kremlin was laying the groundwork for annexing the region — even without having announced such plans outright.

Russia’s control over the south, however tenuous, covers a vast expanse including Ukraine’s agricultural heartland, Europe’s largest nuclear power plant and several ports. Along with Russia’s naval dominion in the Black Sea, annexing the region would allow Moscow to tighten its stranglehold on the Ukrainian economy and solidify its blockade of Ukraine’s southern coast.

The Ukrainian military has warned that Russia is fortifying its defensive positions in southern Ukraine, as its forces have retreated in the northeast and have failed to gain ground in the eastern Donbas region. Moscow’s announcements are also part of a propaganda campaign aimed at conveying control over territories where — even though Russia’s grip seems firmer than elsewhere in Ukraine — military analysts say its forces could still face both public uprisings and Ukrainian counteroffensives.

In other developments:

— President Joe Biden on Thursday offered his unequivocal endorsement for Sweden and Finland joining NATO, saying their accession would strengthen the alliance and reinforce European security. He said the countries meet “every NATO requirement and then some.”

— The Russian Defense Ministry said that more than 700 Ukrainian fighters from the Azov battalion had surrendered over the past 24 hours at the steel plant in Mariupol. A total of 1,730 fighters have surrendered so far, Moscow said, as it seeks to portray victory despite the long, ruinous fight for that city.

— The Senate unanimously confirmed Bridget Brink to be the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine, filling a position that has remained empty for more than a year. The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv has just reopened after a three-month closure.

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