By LISA MASCARO, AP Congress correspondent
WASHINGTON (AP) — As members of Ukraine’s parliament pleaded for help on Capitol Hill, an air raid siren sounded on one of their cellphones — a heartbreaking alert from the war-torn country.
One of the visitors reached into his bag, pulled out the phone, and let the siren wail through the halls of Congress.
“Right now, do you hear the sound?” said Anastasia Radina, a member of the Ukrainian Rada.
“It’s the air raid alarm in the community where my son is staying right now,” she told a news conference this week after meeting with members of Congress. “I need you all to hear this.”
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Ukrainian lawmakers met for the second day on Wednesday with their counterparts in the US Congress, urging US allies to provide more rapid military aid – fighter jets, tanks and other support – and impose tougher economic sanctions on invaders. Russians they are trying to push out of their country.
The visiting lawmakers, all women, with family back home, were warning the United States that it did not trust ongoing negotiations with Russian President Vladimir Putin over an end to the month-long war. And they made Americans realize that their country was at a crucial moment in the fight against its invasion.
“They desperately need more help both with military assistance and tougher sanctions,” Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, said, emerging from Wednesday’s private meeting on Capitol Hill.
US lawmakers have pressured President Joe Biden’s administration to do more for Ukraine – lending political support to sanctions against Russian leaders, a ban on Russian oil imports to the US, even saying that Putin should be investigated for war crimes.
Biden announced on Wednesday that the United States would send an additional $500 million in direct aid to Ukraine as the Russian invasion continues. At the same time, the Senate was pushing to pass legislation suspending Russia’s privileged trading status – a move that got tangled up on a related human rights provision, even though there is a wide support for suspending normal trade relations and stopping Russian oil imports.
Lawmakers emerging from two days of meetings with Ukrainian lawmakers maintained a largely unified front, with Republicans and Democrats saying more funding would be needed, beyond the nearly $14 billion in military and humanitarian aid recently approved. . Many are members of Ukraine’s House and Senate caucuses, formed years ago to bolster the emerging democracy following its exit from the former Soviet Union.
Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., on Wednesday described a sense of “buoyancy” in the room with Ukrainian lawmakers amid news of Russia’s possible departure from Kyiv, even as he acknowledged the likely fights yet to come.
“There’s a lot of support in Congress to continue helping them,” he said.
Still, Congress fears the Biden administration is too timid in its response and too slow to send needed military equipment. Some speak of an “Afghan syndrome” of the administration.
Republicans in particular, but also Democratic lawmakers, suggest the US is reluctant to dig deeper into conflict overseas with military aid pledges after 20 years of fighting ‘eternal war’ in Afghanistan .
Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, said Ukrainians she’s met in the past have used the term “Afghan syndrome,” but on Wednesday Ukrainian lawmakers instead spoke urgently about the military aid they need – with fighter jets at the top of the list.
“If they want to win, they need more,” Ernst said. “And they know they can win. But they just need the support from the United States.
The Ukrainians delivered a long list of specific military equipment they are asking for, and the senators said at the top remained the fighter jets the Biden administration was hesitant to transfer from NATO ally Poland.
The Ukrainians told reporters after meeting with House lawmakers a day earlier that they also wanted other air support systems as well as tanks to push the Russians out of their towns.
As Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy woke up the world alongside his country, addressing via live video feeds to legislative bodies around the world, Ukrainian lawmakers provided their own compelling portrait this week in Washington – of women fighting for their country abroad while their loved ones and families fight from home.
In meetings on Capitol Hill and later with Ukrainian embassy officials, lawmakers said that while they were grateful for the U.S. aid their country had received, they needed more — especially now. because Russia’s strategy could change.
But Ukrainian lawmakers were apparently leaving Washington without firm commitments. Opposition MK Ivanna Klympush-Tsintsadze said members of Congress were “ready” to act, but nothing concrete.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have time,” she told a later press conference at the Ukrainian Embassy in Washington.
Ruling party lawmaker Radina expressed frustration that the US still distinguishes between defensive and offensive weapons, and said Ukraine now needs jets and air defense systems .
“What we need is action,” she said.
Ukrainians are wary of talks with Putin and they have presented the war not only as a fight for their country but for all of Western democracy. More than 4 million people have fled Ukraine since the start of the invasion.
“Putin cannot be trusted,” Yevheniya Kravchuk, a member of Ukraine’s parliament, said at Tuesday’s press conference.
Some Capitol Hill lawmakers travel to Ukraine’s border regions on weekends to understand the war first-hand. What they saw was reminiscent of the images many grew up learning about World War II.
“It’s freezing. There’s like a little flurry of snow, I mean most people didn’t have winter coats, they had like a bag,” said Rep. David Cicilline, DR.I ., recounting what he saw a few weeks ago at the Polish border.
“It was reminiscent of World War II,” he said. “You’re like watching, you just see this mass exodus of people.”
Associated Press writers Ben Fox and Aamer Madhani contributed to this report.
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