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Blinken vows US support to wary Moldova as Ukraine war rages

CHISINAU, Moldova (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday pledged America’s support to the small, Western-leaning former Soviet republic of Moldova that is coping with an influx of refugees from Ukraine and warily watching Russia’s intensifying war with its neighbor.

Blinken met with senior Moldovan officials who are appealing for international assistance in dealing with more than 120,000 refugees from Ukraine that it is now hosting while also seeking security reassurances against potential Russian aggression.

More than 230,000 people have fled into or passed through Moldova from Ukraine since the war began 11 days ago. Blinken said Moldova’s welcoming of refugees is an inspiration to the world.

“We admire the generosity of hospitality, the willingness to be such good friends to people who are in distress, and, indeed, I want to do everything we can to help you deal with the burden that this has imposed,” he said.

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Russia has troops in Moldova, a country of 2.6 million, stationed in the disputed territory of Transnistria, and they are being closely watched as Russian President Vladimir Putin presses ahead with the invasion of Ukraine.

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“This is a subject of high vulnerability and we watch it carefully,” Moldovan President Maia Sandu said. She said there had not yet been any indication that the roughly 1,500 Russian soldiers based in Transnistria had changed posture but stressed that it was a concern given what is happening in Ukraine.

“In this region now there is no possibility for us to feel safe,” Sandu said.

Although it is neutral militarily and has no plans to try to become a member of NATO, Moldova formally applied to join the European Union just three days ago in a fast-track bid to bolster its ties with the West.

“While we are facing this unprecedented circumstances, we are firmly committed to our path for European integration,” Prime Minister Natalia Gavrilita said. “We believe that this is an agenda to transform Moldova into a modern, prosperous European state based on the fundamental values of human rights and the rule of law.”

Blinken praised Moldova’s European aspirations and said Moldova could count on U.S. support.

“Moldova has chosen the path to democracy, a more inclusive economy, a closer relationship with the countries and institutions of Europe, and the United States supports Moldova in those efforts grounded in our respect for the neutrality that’s enshrined in the constitution,” he said.

“Moldova is a powerful example of a democracy rising to the moment with vision and with determination,” Blinken said.

The hourlong exchange with some 300 members of Congress and their staffs came as Russian troops continued to shell encircled cities and the number of Ukrainians who have fled the country grew to 1.4 million.

“President Zelenskyy made a desperate plea,” said Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer.

He said Zelenskyy wants the U.S. to facilitate the transfer of planes from Eastern European allies. “I will do all I can to help the administration to facilitate their transfer,” Schumer said.

The U.S. is considering sending American-made F-16s as backfill to former Soviet bloc countries in Eastern Europe that are now members of NATO. They, in turn, would send Ukraine their own Soviet-era MiGs, which Ukrainian pilots are trained to fly.

There appears to be a logistical problem, however, in sending the F-16s to Poland or other East European allies because of a production backlog. These countries would essentially have to give their MiGs to the Ukrainians and accept an IOU from the U.S. for the F-16s. The situation is further complicated because the next shipment of F-16s is set for Taiwan, and Congress would be reluctant to delay those deliveries as it eyes China.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken indicated the fighter jets are under consideration after meeting with Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dymtro Kuleba at the Poland-Ukraine border outside the town of Korczowa.

“We are talking about and working on everything,” Blinken told reporters.

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Blinken reiterated that the U.S. support for Ukraine “not only has been unprecedented, not only is it going to continue, it’s going to increase.”

The U.S. Congress is working on a $10 billion package of military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Schumer told Zelenskyy lawmakers hope to send it quickly to Ukraine, according to a person on the call and granted anonymity to discuss it.

When Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell asked about the types of military support his country needs, Zelenskyy said drones as well as planes would be the most helpful.

During the call, Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia asked Zelenskyy about the idea of banning the import of Russian oil to the U.S., according to two other people granted anonymity to discuss the private call. They said Zelenskyy indicated such a ban would be effective in putting pressure on Russia.

Republicans and a growing number of Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi, back the idea of an Russian oil import ban. The Biden administration has so far resisted that step, worried about rising prices at the pump.

Zelenskyy urged U.S. lawmakers to sanction Russia’s oil and gas sector, which has so far escaped the mounting sanctions imposed by the Biden administration and other countries.

The Ukrainian leader also urged lawmakers to suspend Visa and Mastercard credit card access in Russia — and the two announced later Saturday that they were doing just that. Mastercard said cards issued by Russian banks will no longer be supported by its network and any card issued outside the country will not work at Russian stores or ATMs. Visa said it’s working with clients and partners in Russia to cease all Visa transactions over the coming days.

In a video posted to Twitter after the call, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said: “Anything that could hurt the Russian economy will help the Ukrainian people and may make this war more difficult for Putin.”

Zelenskyy’s office said he also suggested the U.S. consider imposing an embargo on all Russian goods and stripping Russia of its most-favored-nation trade status.

Lawmakers are concerned that Zelenskyy will be killed in the Russian invasion. They are also worried that a Ukrainian government under assault will be unable to function and to receive aid.

When one lawmaker asked diplomatically what would happen if he was killed, Zelenskyy acknowledged the concerns but implored Congress to do whatever it can to help Ukraine fight off Russia’s assault on his country.

Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., said in a statement that Zelenskyy’s “message is simple: ‘close the skies or give us planes.’”

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