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Joe Biden presses $33B aid package for Ukraine as Russia steps up bombardment in the east

President Biden prodded Congress on Thursday to approve another $33 billion to support Ukraine in its fight against a renewed Russian military assault and replenish depleted American arsenals, saying the cost of defending democracy in Kyiv “is not cheap.”

The request for a dramatic increase in American military, economic and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine came as massing Russian forces bombarded several areas of Ukraine Thursday, including the capital of Kyiv, which was targeted by two Russian cruise missiles even as the secretary-general of the United Nations was making his first visit to the city since the two-month-old invasion began.

At least one person was killed in Kyiv and several were trapped in rubble of two buildings that were struck in what amounted to the most aggressive strikes on the Ukrainian capital since Russian forces retreated from the city weeks ago in the face of fierce resistance from Ukraine’s military.

Explosions rocked several other cities as well on Thursday, and Ukrainian forces carried out a range of retaliatory strikes amid mounting concern of a widening new escalation of the war. The fighting came a day after Russian President Vladimir Putin cut off natural gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria, and threatened “lightning-fast” military responses against the U.S. and its allies if they tried to intervene in the assault on Ukraine.

In Washington, Mr. Biden argued that the United States must continue to support Ukraine, suggesting that his administration has assessed that the war is far from over and that Americans should prepare for more expenses to come. The new request is more than double what Washington has offered so far to Ukraine in the war.

“The cost of this fight is not cheap, but caving to aggression is going to be more costly if we allow it to happen,” the president said in remarks outlining the supplemental funding request at the White House. “We either back the Ukraine people as they defend their country or we stand by as the Russians continue their atrocities and aggressions in Ukraine.”

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He added that the White House has prepared legislation to significantly broaden the administration’s power to seize and sell the assets of Russian oligarchs, such as yachts and private jets, with the proceeds then being earmarked for Ukraine.

But the brunt of Mr. Biden’s presentation centered on the $33 billion being requested from Congress — a figure that would amount to a dramatic increase in funding for U.S. efforts to support Ukraine.

Washington has provided billions for Ukraine since the beginning of Mr. Biden’s presidency, with much of it coming after Russia invaded. Congress passed legislation in March approving an additional $13.6 billion, including $3.5 billion in military equipment. Mr. Biden said that aid has been exhausted as the Russian attack on Ukraine enters its third month.

Senior administration officials said the $33 billion now being requested — nearly two-thirds of which is targeted for Ukraine’s military and for backing NATO allies on the front lines — is expected to last through September, which is the end of the government’s fiscal year. The increase, they said, would ensure that Ukraine has the weapons it needs to fight its Russian attackers while also replenishing U.S. stockpiles of weapons that have been rushed to Kyiv during recent months.

Missiles hit Kyiv

The bombardment of Kyiv on Thursday came barely an hour after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy had held a news conference with U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, who said Ukraine has become “an epicenter of unbearable heartache and pain.”

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A spokesperson said Mr. Guterres and his team were safe. The U.N. chief, who met with Mr. Putin in the Kremlin earlier in the week, has faced criticism for not being more visible in the campaign to force Russia to seek a diplomatic end to the crisis.

The two Russian cruise missiles were apparently aiming for a defense plant in the western part of Kyiv. It was not clear if the site had been hit.

Meanwhile, explosions were reported across Ukraine, in Polinne in the west, Chernihiv near the border with Belarus, and in Fastiv, a large railway hub southwest of Kyiv. The mayor of Odesa in southern Ukraine said rockets were intercepted there by Ukrainian air defenses.

There were also reports of intense Russian fire in the Donbas — the eastern industrial heartland that the Kremlin is bent on capturing — and near Kharkiv, a northeastern city outside the Donbas that is seen as key to the offensive.

In the ruined southern port city of Mariupol, Ukrainian fighters holed up in the steel plant that represents the last pocket of resistance said concentrated bombing overnight killed and wounded more people. And authorities warned that a lack of safe drinking water inside the city could lead to outbreaks of deadly diseases.

The fresh attacks came as Mr. Guterres surveyed the destruction in small towns outside the capital that saw some of the worst horrors of the first onslaught of the war. He condemned the atrocities committed in towns like Bucha, where evidence of mass killings of civilians was found after Russia withdrew in early April in the face of unexpectedly stiff resistance.

“Wherever there is a war, the highest price is paid by civilians,” the U.N. chief lamented, reiterating the importance of investigating alleged war crimes.

As Russia presses its offensive, civilians again bear the brunt.

“It’s not just scary. It’s when your stomach contracts from pain,” Kharkiv resident Tatiana Pirogova told The Associated Press. “When they shoot during the day, it’s still OK, but when the evening comes, I can’t describe how scary it is.”

Full U.S. support

Roughly $20.4 billion of the new aid funding being requested by Mr. Biden would go toward additional security and military assistance for Ukrainian forces, including additional artillery, armored vehicles, anti-armor and anti-air capabilities. The funds would also cover the costs of advanced air defense systems, boost Ukraine’s cyber capabilities, clear landmines and other explosive devices, and address biological, radiological and nuclear material hazards.

Another $8.5 billion in economic aid would go directly to the government of Ukraine to provide basic services, including health care and infrastructure projects, as well as to counter Russian disinformation.

Roughly $3 billion in humanitarian assistance would target food security by addressing wheat, flour and other shortages. It would also provide Ukraine with blankets, emergency medical supplies, job training and mental health services. An additional $500 million in food production aid would support the production of crops in the U.S. that are in short supply because of the war in Ukraine.

Administration officials said the president is separately seeking a small amount of funding under the Defense Production Act to produce materials that are in short supply domestically. Those items range from Javelin anti-tank missiles to automobiles. It is estimated that the U.S. supply of Javelins, thousands of which have been shipped to Ukraine, has dropped 33% since the start of the war.

Ukraine has received bipartisan support in Congress since the Russian invasion, but Republicans signaled Thursday they were not ready to give Mr. Biden a blank check and would have to work their way through the latest request.

“I need to go through the details,” Sen. Marco Rubio, Florida Republican, told CNN. “I don’t fixate on the amount that much. It’s more about what you want to offer them? Is it what they need now for the foreseeable future?”

But House lawmakers did come together on another measure Thursday, voting to extend the World War II-era Lend-Lease Program to expedite aid to Ukraine. After a 417-10 vote in the House, the bill now goes to Mr. Biden to be signed into law. The measure is meant to give the administration greater flexibility to ship military equipment to both Ukraine and NATO allies in Eastern Europe.

Last week, Mr. Biden announced $800 million in military assistance for Ukraine, which included heavy artillery, dozens of howitzers and 144,000 rounds of ammunition.

The U.S. isn’t the only Western country shipping high-power weapons to Ukrainians to assist them in their struggle against Moscow. France and Great Britain are among those who signed on to support Kyiv. Germany’s parliament overwhelmingly approved a precedent-breaking measure Thursday for Berlin to join in sending heavy weapons, such as anti-aircraft systems and armored vehicles, a step the German government has long resisted in past conflicts.

As the fighting in Ukraine has moved east — where the terrain is flatter than in other parts of the country — artillery has become a frequent request from Ukrainian officials.

The Pentagon said this week that Ukrainian troops have received more than 45 howitzers — the first half of a security assistance package that includes 90 M-777 towed artillery pieces, as well as 11 Mi-17 helicopters and 200 M-113 armored personnel carriers.

The M-777 is the top-of-the-line towed 155-mm howitzer used by Army and Marine Corps troops. The cannon saw extensive combat operations in Afghanistan. It can shoot a standard M-107 high explosive round about 15 miles, or 25 miles if using an M-982 Excalibur extended range guided artillery shell.

The Pentagon has mobilized to train some 50 Ukrainian artillery soldiers on the equipment at undisclosed locations outside the country, where they could be instructed by U.S. personnel before returning home to train their comrades.

Pentagon officials confirmed Wednesday that the first round of “train the trainer” has been completed. Citing security concerns, they declined to confirm the location of the artillery training program.

“They finished up earlier this week. Now, we’re working on the second tranche of training,” Pentagon spokesman John Kirby told reporters.

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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