Will Congress keep Ukraine in the fight?

Will Congress keep Ukraine in the fight?

mike johnson Photo credit: via Getty Images Photo credit: via Getty Images

Last October, the Biden administration asked Congress for $60 billion to fund assistance to Ukraine in its war against Russia. That aid has been linked to, and then delinked from, Republican demands for measures to strengthen security on the U.S.-Mexican border. In the early hours of February 13, the Senate voted 70-29 to approve Ukraine assistance (along with aid for Israel and Taiwan). House Speaker Mike Johnson wasted little time in rejecting the bill. How this plays out will greatly affect Ukraine’s ability to resist; an end to U.S. aid would increase the prospect of a Russian victory.

Ukraine at war

On February 24, 2022, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered a major invasion of Ukraine, turning the Russia-Ukraine conflict, which began with Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014, into the largest war in Europe since World War II ended in 1945. Virtually everyone expected the Ukrainian military’s defeat in a matter of weeks, if not days, but it defied all expectations. The Ukrainians have held out for nearly two years. Today, the Russian military occupies little more Ukrainian territory than it did at the start of 2023 and significantly less than it did in the first part of 2022.

Ukrainian soldiers have demonstrated courage, resolve, and ingenuity in defending their homeland. Key to their success has been the flow of weapons and munitions from the United States and NATO members. The Biden administration’s request aimed to sustain U.S. assistance into 2025. As the last U.S. package in December exhausted available assistance funds, the need has become critical. For example, the Russian army now fires five times as many artillery shells per day as Ukraine’s army.

Assistance with or without border security?

Ukraine has long enjoyed broad bipartisan support in Congress, but that changed in 2023. The Biden administration’s assistance request was met by Republican demands, first in the House, then the Senate, for action to secure the U.S. southern border. In October, negotiations began in the Senate on a bill combining assistance for Ukraine (and Israel and Taiwan) with border security measures. The Biden administration should have pressed for greater urgency, but, finally, a bipartisan group of senators unveiled a draft bill on February 5.

While falling short of the GOP’s most ardent hopes, the draft bill included significant changes to border policy. It gave the Department of Homeland Security the authority to shut down the border if migrant encounters averaged 4,000 or more per day and required it to do so if the rate hit an average of 5,000 per day. The bill raised the standard for migrants seeking asylum and codified procedures for swift deportation of those who did not meet the standard.

The bill received an unenthusiastic welcome from Republicans. Johnson pronounced it “dead on arrival” in the House … even before the bill was released. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, declared his opposition, prompting speculation that he wanted no improvement in the border situation so that he could campaign on the issue. The bill failed a procedural vote in the Senate, 49-50, with only three Republican senators joining Oklahoma Senator James Lankford, who had negotiated it. (William Galston offers a deeper explanation of why the bill failed on immigration grounds.) With no evident path to move the bill forward, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer announced that the Senate would take up a stand-alone bill on assistance, which attracted 22 Republican votes and passed 70-29.

The opponents’ arguments

Those who oppose further assistance for Ukraine have raised a number of arguments. The first holds that Ukraine is not a vital U.S. interest. Perhaps not Ukraine itself, but U.S. presidents for some seven decades have defined a stable and secure Europe as a vital national interest. If Russia wins, Europe will be less stable and secure—and more demanding of U.S. attention. Moreover, what might an emboldened Putin with a rebuilt Russian military try next? Moldova? One of the Baltic states? Most analysts dismiss a Russian attack on a Baltic state, as they are members of NATO and the European Union. However, almost all analysts five years ago would have ruled out the invasion that Russia launched in 2022. If Putin should invade a Baltic state, American soldiers will be in the fight from the start.

A second argument charges that the United States has provided more assistance to Ukraine than Europe. That is incorrect. The European Union and individual European states between January 2022 and July 2023 committed to Ukraine more than twice as much as the United States, $155 billion to $73 billion. Based on a percentage of gross domestic product, the United States ranks 15th among the top 20 state donors to Ukraine. U.S. assistance amounting to about 0.32 percent of GDP contrasts with that of five European countries—Norway, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and Denmark—which have each committed more than 1 percent of their GDP to help Ukraine.

A third argument claims the United States should not send money to Ukraine because of corruption concerns. In fact, a relatively small amount of U.S. aid is money that goes to finance the Ukrainian government. The current $60 billion request includes:

  • $14 billion for Ukraine to buy arms and ammunition (primarily from U.S. producers).
  • $15 billion for support activities, many provided by the U.S. military, including training and intelligence assistance.
  • $20 billion to replace weapons drawn from U.S. stockpiles for Ukraine (these funds will be spent almost entirely in the United States to purchase newer weapons for the U.S. military).
  • $8 billion for Ukrainian government operations, such as salaries for soldiers and officials, but not pensions.

Finally, some argue that U.S. assistance is wasted because Ukraine cannot win. To be sure, Ukraine faces tough challenges on the battlefield against a larger foe. But if war were determined solely by which side has the larger military, Ukraine would have lost long ago. Ukrainians view the war as existential; they have shown they will fight even if the odds are long.

Of course, if the United States ends its assistance, that will further stack the odds against Ukraine. While European countries appear committed to Ukraine’s defense, they would struggle to make up for lost U.S. capacity. Take the example of critically needed artillery shells. Russia now produces an estimated 4.5 million shells annually. Europe may be able to hit an annual rate of 1.25 million shells this year, but it could not make up for the U.S. capacity of 1.2 million shells. Other key weapon types can only be produced at scale in the United States.

What next?

Johnson seems unmoved by the urgency of the matter. He told House Republicans on February 14 that the House should not feel rushed and, ironically, complained that the Senate bill did nothing about border security. Were Johnson to allow an open vote, assistance for Ukraine would easily pass. Last October, Republicans for Ukraine graded the demonstrated support for Ukraine of each Republican member of Congress. One-half earned an “A” or “B.” However, Johnson earned an “F” and appears strongly swayed by opposition from Trump and the Marjorie Taylor Greene hard-right MAGA wing of the Republican caucus.

If Johnson continues to hold up consideration of the Senate assistance bill, House members could seek to circumvent the speaker. If 218 members sign a discharge petition, they can force a vote, though the procedure takes some weeks to play out. A discharge petition would require that at least a small number of Republican members break with their party’s leadership and possibly incur the wrath of Trump and the party’s MAGA wing. House members might also resort to a more obscure procedure—a motion to “move the previous question”—to get around Johnson. As with a discharge petition, it would require some Republicans to break with the leadership to get to 218 members.

If Congress does not act, the administration will have to look for a Plan B. One possibility might be the Excess Defense Articles Act, which allows the transfer to other countries of equipment declared “excess” to the needs of the U.S. military. However, the procedures are cumbersome, require Congressional notification, and make no provision for replenishing U.S. stockpiles.

An alternative Plan B might seek to seize frozen Russian central bank funds and use those monies to support Ukraine. While legislation to enable such seizures is working its way through Congress, only a small portion of the more than $300 billion in frozen funds come under U.S. jurisdiction. The bulk of the money is in Europe. EU countries are moving to use the interest of the frozen assets for Ukraine but thus far seem reluctant to seize them outright.

Either possible Plan B appears difficult and, in any case, would need time. Attention thus will remain focused on the House speaker, who may well hold Ukraine’s fate in his hands. Is Johnson prepared to bear the responsibility as the one who crippled Ukraine’s effort to defend itself?

Originally posted to brookings.edu