Alarm grows in Washington over future of US military aid to Ukraine

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The White House and pro-Ukraine lawmakers are growing increasingly alarmed about the future of US funding for Kyiv in the wake of Kevin McCarthy’s ousting as speaker of the House of Representatives, which has left military aid in limbo.

The risk of a lapse in American aid to Ukraine within a few months — a worst-case scenario for the Biden administration which has until now seemed unlikely — has risen in the past few days as chaos has enveloped the Republican party in Congress.

It has also triggered soul-searching in Washington over the impact of US political dysfunction on the administration’s foreign policy goals, as it tries to forge global alliances to counter Russian aggression and rising threats from China.

“Will we appease Putin and cut off aid to the Ukrainians? If we do, it will be our problem,” said Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and the chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, in a speech on the Senate floor this week.

“It just breaks the heart to see that we cannot put the national security of the country itself above the partisanship here in Washington,” said Heather Conley, president of the German Marshall Fund in the US.

Concerns have been compounded by the fact that Jim Jordan — one of the two leading candidates to replace McCarthy as speaker, who is backed by former president Donald Trump — has been openly sceptical of Ukraine aid, if not hostile towards it. Steve Scalise, the other top contender for the speaker job, has backed Ukraine funding in the past. But if he prevails it is unclear whether he would defy the right flank of the party with a vote to bolster aid to Kyiv.

“Jim Jordan is a real candidate to take over the House speakership and he voted against Ukraine funding. So I would be worried if I were [Volodymyr] Zelenskyy and his team watching US domestic politics unfold from afar,” said Rachel Rizzo, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Europe Center, referring to the Ukrainian president.

Worries about the future of Ukraine funding mounted when it was omitted from legislation last Saturday to avert a government shutdown, at least until mid-November. President Joe Biden has tried to reassure American supporters of Ukraine and allies around the world that it would ultimately be approved.

Once McCarthy was removed from his post by a small group of Republican rebels and all Democrats in the House, though, it was harder for the White House to remain upbeat.

“Time is not our friend. We have enough funding authorities to meet Ukraine’s battlefield needs for a bit longer, but we need Congress to act to ensure that there is no disruption in our support,” John Kirby, co-ordinator for strategic communications at the National Security Council, told reporters.

Biden has noted that a majority of members of the House and Senate in both parties say they back continued funding for Ukraine. But he conceded that he needs to make a more concerted defence of US support to the American public.

“I’m going to be announcing very shortly a major speech I’m going to make on this issue and why it’s critically important for the United States and our allies that we keep our commitment,” he said.

The US president then convened a meeting of his top national security team to discuss Ukraine.

Biden is facing mounting pressure, particularly from Republicans in Congress who support aid to Ukraine, to deliver a much more definitive explanation of the US strategy in the war to help sustain public support.

“Your administration has failed to articulate a strategy outlining how US assistance to Ukraine will help them achieve victory over Russia, while also prioritising and advancing American interests,” Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate foreign relations committee, and Michael McCaul, the chair of the House foreign affairs committee, wrote in a letter to Biden on Friday. 

“A pledge to support Ukraine ‘for as long as it takes’ is not a strategy,” they added.

“The administration has not provided a strong consistent message to Congress or the American people. Now aid to Ukraine has become a lightning rod issue in Congress,” added Heather Nauert, a former state department spokesperson under Trump now at BGR, a lobbying group in Washington.

The ramifications for Ukraine’s war effort of a possible reduction or lapse in funding are serious.

“It could not come at a more difficult time, because Ukraine’s counteroffensive is at its most difficult moment. This is exactly when we need to give Ukraine all the means necessary to accomplish this as quickly as possible,” said Conley.

Raphael Cohen of the Rand Corporation said this could be a watershed moment in the historical debate about whether the US did or did not “play this war correctly,” and whether it should have delivered more aid more rapidly than it did.

“There will be an argument if aid peters out that [the US strategy] contributed to slower battlefield results” and failed to take into account “a diminishing window of public support”, Cohen said.

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