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Ukraine’s Battle for Capitol Hill
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Ukraine’s Battle for Capitol Hill

The future of American aid to the embattled nation will be shaped by the counteroffensive now underway.

Sen. Lindsey Graham at the U.S. Capitol in February 2023. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

In the coming months Ukrainian forces will try to expel Russians from the roughly 20 percent of Ukraine they currently occupy. While no one knows whether the counteroffensive will prove successful, many American lawmakers want to continue assisting the Ukrainians as long as they’re willing to fight.

Yet pro-Ukraine Republicans worry that battlefield setbacks could boost the increasingly vocal minority of GOP lawmakers who have called for an end to assistance for the embattled nation. And they believe that the absence of a clear political strategy from an overly cautious Biden administration could undermine Kyiv at a critical moment.

Ukrainian forces began their push into parts of the country’s occupied southeast last week, making gains in the Donetsk and Zaporizhzhia oblasts. Ukrainian Deputy Defense Minister Hanna Maliar claimed Monday that the troops had reclaimed seven towns and villages, but the liberating forces face a grueling fight ahead: Entrenched Russian forces are taking advantage of Ukraine’s scant air defenses to devastate exposed units. 

“It is quite important that the counteroffensive show some progress,” says Mark Cancian, senior adviser with the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ International Security program. “It doesn’t have to produce victory—and nobody really expects it to produce a final victory—but to show substantial progress for a U.S. audience and a foreign audience.”

Supporting Ukraine remains popular in the U.S., Kyiv’s most important benefactor. A March Harvard CAPS-Harris Poll found that 67 percent of Americans support backing Ukraine until Russia retreats from Ukrainian territory or is defeated on the battlefield. But there is some trouble on the horizon as Republicans lose patience faster than the rest of the public. In a Pew Research survey conducted in January, 40 percent of Republican respondents said the U.S. was providing too much aid to Ukraine, up from just 9 percent from March 2022. Republicans who viewed Russia’s invasion as a major threat to American interests declined from 51 percent to 29 percent in the same period. 

Expect bigger shifts among the GOP and country at large depending on how Ukraine’s counteroffensive goes: Reclaim captured swaths of the country’s east—diminishing Russia’s available fighting force and ammunition in the process—and Americans will feel like they’re backing a winning horse. Get bogged down in a standstill or lose still more territory, and taxpayers will worry their dollars are bankrolling a costly war of attrition. 

“It’s a lot easier to go home to your districts and say, ‘Look at how these American taxpayer dollars are being spent—they’re being spent to win. This is a good deal. This is money well spent,’” one congressional aide tells The Dispatch. “When you get into the conversation about a frozen conflict, or an extended standoff with no real meaningful sort of changing of hands, policy and all of that becomes a much more difficult sell.”

A minority of Republicans have already made up their minds. In April, a group of 19 House and Senate Republicans wrote a letter to Biden calling for the end of “unrestrained U.S. aid for Ukraine.” The status quo, they argue, “will only prolong the conflict, leading to escalation and more violence.” The letter was notable less for what it said than for how few supporters it attracted. 

Among the signatories was freshman Sen. J.D. Vance, who says the next phase of the war may get his colleagues to “reevaluate” their current approach. “Look, I’m not rooting for the Ukrainians to lose here. I’m just rooting for us to de-escalate the conflict,” he tells The Dispatch. “That would be true whether they win or lose in the counteroffensive.”

Even if a bipartisan congressional majority supporting Ukraine persists, there are still divisions about how exactly to keep the funds flowing, especially in the aftermath of President Joe Biden and House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s deal to suspend the debt limit until 2025.

Some GOP lawmakers expressed early concern that the agreement, which included spending caps, had short-changed the Pentagon by thwarting bipartisan plans to raise Biden’s requested defense budget. Sen. Lindsey Graham and others are reportedly looking to Ukraine aid as a vehicle for beefing up the defense budget, because the emergency spending falls outside of the limits established by the deal. (Defense spending is separate from the supplemental bills that authorized $113 billion in assistance for Ukraine since the war’s start in February 2022.)

But any such supplemental bill would require support from the Republican-led House. That’s not likely to be forthcoming, at least for now. McCarthy last week came out against a defense supplemental in the near future. “This is the most money we’ve ever spent on defense—this is the most money anyone in the world has ever spent on defense,” he argued, advocating to keep defense spending for fiscal year 2024 at the $886 billion topline requested by the Biden administration. 

Other House Republicans, even staunch supporters of Ukraine, concur that a Ukraine-focused supplemental would be premature on the heels of the recent debt ceiling deal. “I support Ukraine and believe its independence from Russia is in our national security interest,” Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, a member of the Armed Services Committee, tells The Dispatch. “I don’t see an imminent need to vote for a supplemental.”

Even if a supplemental would be inconvenient now, some lawmakers have assessed that the pot of allocated U.S. security assistance may be running low. Congressional Republicans and their staffers have accused the White House of being opaque in its plan for continuing support to Ukraine. One aide complained that the administration has yet to put forth a request for a supplemental bill despite funds running low. The White House didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The drawdown authority, which pulls directly from Pentagon stocks, has been invoked 40 times since the start of the war to get weapons to the front lines quickly. On Tuesday defense officials announced the latest package—worth up to $325 million—which includes rockets for High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems (HIMARS) and missiles for National Advanced Surface-to-Air Missile Systems (NASAMS), as well as additional Stryker and Bradley armored vehicles. The new aid will further drain the well of the drawdown authority, which was expected to run out imminently before the administration discovered an “accounting error” in May that turned up an additional $3 billion. 

The administration can also access the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI), which allows the U.S. to purchase new weapons systems from the defense industry. The latest USAI package, rolled out Friday, included $2.1 billion in long-term security assistance such as HAWK air defense systems and missiles, munitions for Patriots, drones, and artillery rounds.

Others argue that whatever happens with future aid, Biden already has hindered Ukraine’s war effort by withholding weapons that would aid in its push to retake territory. 

Last week, a bipartisan group of House members led by Democratic Rep. Jason Crow sent Biden a letter urging him to approve the transfer of Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) along with other additional advanced arms, including F-16 fighter jets and additional Patriot air defense systems. “The war in Ukraine has become a conflict of grinding attrition,” the lawmakers wrote. “We can and must help break this stalemate.”

The administration has thus far been reluctant to provide long-range systems like ATACMS over apparent fear of escalation with nuclear-armed Russia—a concern lawmakers argue has been debunked throughout the conflict. “We should have given them ATACMS a long time ago,” Bacon tells The Dispatch. “Long-range precision fires are the ‘coin of the realm’ in this fight.”

One congressional senior staffer argues this reluctance, aside from being ill-founded, is costing Ukrainian lives.

“Ukraine is only going to be as successful as the systems that it’s given by the United States and its other partners. By withholding systems like ATACMS and [cluster bombs], and with the F-16s being so late and not getting there in time for the counteroffensive, we are making it much harder for Ukraine to take back its territory,” the staffer says. “Besides the United States, there are no Western militaries that are able to do the combined arms operations that the Ukrainians are pulling off right now. But not even the United States does it without air superiority, and the Ukrainians don’t have air superiority because they don’t have F-16s and they don’t have enough air defense systems.” 

All this could create a vicious cycle in which insufficient assistance makes Ukrainian success less likely—in turn, making it more likely that future assistance will be insufficient. The question is whether Ukraine will be able to overcome the underwhelming support and exceed expectations again. 

Audrey Fahlberg contributed reporting.

Charlotte Lawson is a reporter at The Dispatch and currently based in Tel Aviv, Israel. Prior to joining the company in 2020, she studied history and global security at the University of Virginia. When Charlotte is not keeping up with foreign policy and world affairs, she is probably trying to hone her photography skills.