Russian President Vladimir Putin’s grim bet that America and the West will tire of his brutal war before he does is looking better by the day.
Nearly seven weeks after President Joe Biden asked Congress for $60 billion to top up Kyiv’s arms and ammunition lifeline — along with another $14 billion for Israel — nothing has happened. In a grave blow to its prospects, Ukraine aid has now been embroiled by Republicans in a separate imbroglio over immigration. The impasse, along with dwindling prospects that Congress will act before the holidays, sparked remarkable warnings by the White House on Monday that heralded a critical moment in the war.
“We’re running out of money, and we are nearly out of time,” Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan told reporters. The toughening of administration rhetoric suggested that any lawmaker who opposed funding was on the Russian leader’s side. “A vote against supporting Ukraine is a vote to improve (Vladimir) Putin’s strategic position,” he said.
Sullivan’s comments came after Office of Management and Budget Director Shalanda Young warned House Speaker Mike Johnson in a letter that “cutting off the flow of U.S. weapons and equipment will kneecap Ukraine on the battlefield, not only putting at risk the gains Ukraine has made, but increasing the likelihood of Russian military victories.”
Ukraine’s ambassador to the United States Oksana Markarova also pleaded for lawmakers not to desert her country. “After we have won so much, we cannot lose it now,” she told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. “We are all praying and hoping for additional support from the American people.”
Can the US really promise to be with Ukraine for as long as it takes?
The alarmist tone raised the question of whether the administration’s frustration was a political tactic designed to jolt Congress into action or reflects genuine concern that the US pipeline of military aid sustaining Ukraine’s resistance is really under threat. Given the failure of Congress and, especially the chaotic House GOP majority, of fulfilling even the most basic duties of government, anxiety verging on panic might be justified in the West Wing.
Rising doubts over the US commitment coincide with a bitter winter beckoning in which Russia is expected to again target Ukrainian civilians and the power plants that keep them warm. There are new signs that Moscow has been able to reconstitute a rebound in its depleted forces and armaments and is deploying new missiles and drones from allies like North Korea and Iran. Israel’s war on Hamas, meanwhile, has overshadowed Ukraine in recent weeks – a situation about which President Volodymyr Zelensky has fretted publicly in recent days.
While Ukraine’s survival is at stake, so is the reputation of the United States as a global leader. Only two weeks ago, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin traveled to Kyiv and publicly told Zelensky, “We will remain with you for the long-haul.” But can the US really honor that vow, both in the short-term Ukraine funding fight and given the possibility that former President Donald Trump, who is hostile to Ukraine and always curries favor with Putin, has a good chance of returning to the White House if he wins the GOP nomination next year?
The idea that Washington would abandon a democratic, sovereign nation fighting off an invasion plotted by the Kremlin would once have been unthinkable. Such a move would not only shatter Western resolve in Ukraine; it could send a signal to adversaries like Russia and China that US security guarantees to allies mean nothing elsewhere in the world. But the shift in the GOP’s worldview – away from its internationalist roots and toward an isolationist “America First” stance favored by Trump – has changed assumptions about US power. The political forces that could reshape the world in a Trump second term are already at play in Washington, especially in the House, and are threatening to transform US foreign policy.
Supporters of continued aid to Ukraine warn that Putin is watching. Republican Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, who serves on the Intelligence and Foreign Relations committees, said at the Halifax International Security Forum last month that “Vladimir Putin, I have reason to believe … believes he’s going to win this war by outlasting us.” Risch added: “They watch every word that is uttered in the United States, in Canada, and with our other allies, from the dissenters, not the vast majority of people who support this.”
Ret. US Army Lt. Gen. Ben Hodges echoed that sense that Moscow is following every move in the US Congress. “The big test of will is between the Kremlin and Western capitals — Washington, Berlin, Paris, London and others,” Hodges said on a briefing organized last week by Spirit of America, a non-profit group that works alongside troops and diplomats to promote US values.
America’s domestic turmoil threatens its global leadership
The same divisive political forces that have turned Congress into a dead end and are fostering the possibility of a second Trump term have combined to threaten the American bankrolling of Ukraine’s resistance.
Right-wing Republicans are demanding a package of hardline immigration policy changes at the southern border in exchange for funding Ukraine that are unacceptable to Senate Democrats. Johnson may struggle to retain his tenuous hold on his job if he uses Democratic votes to pass a Ukraine funding package. And there is little common ground or trust between the Republican-led House and the Democratic-led Senate. Biden’s crumbling approval ratings are limiting his capacity to sell continued massive aid to Ukraine to a public that is becoming more skeptical amid daily struggles in the US, including over high food prices.
Ukraine’s failure to turn its long-promised counter-offensive into concrete gains has, meanwhile, led skeptics of more aid to ask whether it’s being used effectively and how long the war would last. Johnson has, for instance, complained that the administration has not offered a plan for victory in Ukraine or a path to resolving the conflict. These are reasonable concerns given that billions of dollars of taxpayer cash is being used in the aid effort. Yet the situation in Ukraine hardly lends itself to the answers that Johnson seeks. Putin, with his high tolerance for enormous Russian casualties, looks ready to fight a war of attrition to bleed his enemy dry and to await political change in the US and Europe that will slowly strangle Ukraine’s military. Russia and Ukraine have in reality been at war for more than a decade already – since Putin annexed Crimea, a Ukrainian territory, in 2014. As the war grinds into a stalemate, neither Russia nor Ukraine are anywhere near a negotiation on ending it, given that the stakes for both are so high in avoiding defeat.
The Ukraine aid package is now caught in the most intractable US political issue — immigration.
Biden requested $13.6 billion for security at the US-Mexico border, alongside his Israel and Ukraine aid requests, in a bid to ease passage of the measure, which also includes $7.4 billion for Taiwan. But Republicans want policy changes, as well as new funding. In the House, they are pushing for new laws based on H.R. 2, a bill that would encode many of Trump’s hardline immigration policies as well as changes to asylum law. And a bipartisan group of senators has spent several weeks seeking a compromise, but there were conflicting reports Monday on whether their talks had broken down.
Senate Democratic Majority Leader Chuck Schumer will amp up pressure on Senate Republicans who favor more aid to Ukraine but are hostage to the pro-Trump base of their party. He plans to bring a Ukraine-Israel aid package to the floor this week for a vote without immigration measures included. Zelensky had been expected to remotely address a classified Senate briefing on Tuesday to make his country’s case but canceled due to a “last minute” matter, Schumer said. The Ukrainian president didn’t address a similar meeting of House lawmakers either.
“America’s national security is on the line around the world, in Europe, in the Middle East, in the Indo-Pacific, autocrats, dictators are waging war against democracy, against our values, against our way of life,” the New York Democrat said. “We are at a moment in history.”
But a group of Republican senators who normally back Ukraine aid signaled Monday they couldn’t move forward without immigration changes attached to the measure. Texas Sen. John Cornyn warned, for instance, that “our security cannot come second to that of other countries around the world, our allies, even those like Ukraine and Israel.”
Given broad support for Ukraine in the Senate, it seems likely some messy compromise will emerge. But the unpredictability and instability of the GOP-controlled House means an aid package faces a deeply uncertain fate. The GOP majority still hasn’t passed normally routine bills — like one funding the US Defense Department, for instance. And while the chamber did back an Israel funding bill, it was weighed down with cuts to the Internal Revenue Service, which Senate Democrats oppose – a sign of how House Republicans are geared more to partisan messaging than governing or preserving US power and influence abroad.
The coming danger for Ukraine is that it will get dragged even further into a government funding fight that is looming for January and February. And even before the result of the 2024 election is known, it’s clear that there are no longer any guarantees that US billions will be there for however long the war lasts.
And all the while in Moscow, Putin is watching and waiting.
This story has been updated with additional developments.
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