By Paul LeBlanc, CNN
A group of seven US senators met on Monday with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the capital of Kyiv amid the looming threat of a potential Russian invasion of the country.
The bipartisan delegation — Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Chris Murphy and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, along with Republican Sens. Rob Portman of Ohio, Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Roger Wicker of Mississippi — sought to reaffirm the US’ commitment to the country as Russia amasses tens of thousands of troops along Ukraine’s border.
Murphy told reporters by phone from Kyiv that Ukraine is focused on increased support from the US, but that the country is “battle-tested” and “ready.”
“If Putin thinks that he’s going to walk into Central or Western Ukraine without a significant fight then he has fundamentally misread the Ukrainian people and their readiness,” the Connecticut Democrat said.
During the meeting, Zelensky told the US delegation, “It is very important for Ukraine, for our people, that you are with us today,” according to the Ukrainian government. “This testifies to the constant bicameral, bipartisan support of our state, as well as its sovereignty and territorial integrity,” he said.
Ukraine’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman, Oleg Nikolenko, told CNN he expects the US delegation to make strong recommendations to Congress about boosting sanctions against Russia following Monday’s meeting.
The visit follows a series of diplomatic meetings last week that US and NATO allies hoped would lead Russia to pull back from its aggressions toward neighboring Ukraine. But the talks failed to achieve any breakthroughs, as Russia would not commit to deescalating and American and NATO officials said Moscow’s core demands — including that NATO never admit Ukraine into the alliance — were non-starters.
A US official told CNN last week that the US has information indicating Russia has prepositioned a group of operatives to conduct a false-flag operation in eastern Ukraine in an attempt to create a pretext for an invasion. And a number of Ukraine’s governmental websites were hit by a cyberattack on Friday — a development European officials warned would ratchet up tensions even further.
CIA Director Bill Burns met with Zelensky during a previously scheduled trip last week, two sources familiar with his trip told CNN.
Burns “consulted with intelligence counterparts amid concerns of a further invasion of Ukraine by Russia,” a US official said. “They discussed current assessments of risk to Ukraine. While there, he also had the opportunity to discuss the current situation with President Zelensky and efforts to de-escalate tensions.”
The CIA has a long-standing policy of not commenting on or publicly announcing the director’s travel.
“During this time of extreme Russian provocation, it is more important than ever to assert our strong, bipartisan support for Ukraine’s sovereignty,” Klobuchar said in a statement Monday.
That messaged was echoed by Wicker who said Ukraine “is on the embattled frontier of the free world.”
“This sovereign country deserves the steadfast support of its American friends during this dangerous and pivotal time,” he added.
Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken briefed a group of US lawmakers considering traveling to Ukraine, Undersecretary of State for Political Affairs Toria Nuland said.
“He will go through with them all aspects of the policy and make sure that they’re up to date, both on the diplomacy but also on the costs and on our engagements with the Ukrainians, which have been extremely rich and full, as you know, and ask them to carry messages of preparedness and of unity,” she said at a briefing at the State Department.
US officials and European allies have warned that Moscow will face unprecedented economic consequences if it further invades Ukraine, but the Biden administration has so far indicated it will not use sanctions as a deterrent.
“If Russia wants to move forward with diplomacy, we are absolutely ready to do that, in lockstep with our allies and partners. If Russia wants to go down the path of invasion and escalation, we’re ready for that too, with a robust response that will cut off their strategic position,” national security adviser Jake Sullivan said on CBS on Sunday.
“So, from our perspective, we are pursuing simultaneously deterrence and diplomacy, and we’ve been clear and steadfast in that, again, fully united with the transatlantic community,” he said.
This story has been updated with comments from Sen. Chris Murphy and details about CIA Director Bill Burns’ visit to Ukraine.
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CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Kylie Atwood, Natasha Bertrand, Katie Bo Lillis and Matthew Chance contributed to this report.