Ukraine aid is hanging by a thread

Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), right, speaks with Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) during a House Armed Services Committee meeting on Feb. 2. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)
Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), right, speaks with Rep. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) during a House Armed Services Committee meeting on Feb. 2. (Ricky Carioti/The Washington Post)

As Washington turns its focus toward the 2024 presidential campaign, U.S. aid to Ukraine is becoming increasingly vulnerable to partisan politics and the culture wars. When the next tranche comes up for a vote in Congress, the number of Republicans voting no will be high. If the Biden administration wants to preserve the flow of support to Kyiv, it will need to mount a more robust, more honest case about the expected costs and length of the war effort to lawmakers and the American people.

Since the full-scale Russian invasion began in February 2022, the United States has committed $113 billion to military, economic and humanitarian aid for Ukraine and other countries impacted by the war. The Biden administration is set to ask Congress to approve an additional $24 billion. With Congress already in chaos amid a looming shutdown of the federal government, aid for Ukraine is likely to be considered separately, at least in the House. This means it can no longer expect a free ride on a separate piece of must-pass legislation.

The number of Republicans to vote against more aid, unless Biden meets a list of GOP conditions, will be “at least half”, Rep. Michael Waltz (R-Fla.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told me during a panel discussion I moderated on Monday at the Concordia Annual Summit on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly. Waltz laid out those conditions in an op-ed published under the headline “The era of Ukraine’s blank check from Congress is over”.

Waltz says he wants the Biden administration to provide better accounting of the aid and to spell out exactly how it plans to help bring the war to an end. He also wants to see new financial commitments from European partners. Otherwise, he says he’ll vote no.

“I think it’s absolutely in America’s interest to stop [Vladimir] Putin cold. … However, the era of blank checks for aid, at least coming from Congress, is over”, he said. “Without those conditions … I don’t think I can get to yes’ anymore”.

In May 2022, 149 Republicans voted for Ukraine aid, with 57 voting against. In the Senate, only 11 Republicans voted against the funding. If Waltz’s rough estimate is correct, those opposed to additional funding could double this time around. Senate GOP aides tell me that the number of Republicans prepared to vote against the aid in that chamber will rise significantly.

Biden officials often tell journalists that the GOP opposition to helping Ukraine is limited to a small group of far-right MAGA members — and that Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) can keep his caucus in line. But even some Democratic lawmakers are now sounding the alarm, saying that more must be done to defend the aid in public and private.

Rep. Pat Ryan (D-N.Y.) said during our panel that the tide is turning inside the GOP in ways advocates for Ukraine aid have not properly acknowledged. He said more must be done to make the case to the American people that the aid is not only crucial to Kyiv but delivers a high return on investment for U.S. security as well.

“A significant percentage of the Republican caucus is no longer supportive of this”, Ryan said. “The very extreme right has hijacked the Republican Party and lost this bipartisan consensus we had that we are for democracy and for freedom”.

Waltz and Ryan are both decorated military veterans who sit on the Armed Services Committee. They both agree that the United States has an interest in stopping Putin’s aggression now, lest he succeed and then attack more countries. Where they diverge is on whether the American public is still committed to giving Ukraine what it needs to win.

To be sure, Waltz’s concerns about aid oversight have merit and his call for more clarity on U.S. objectives in Ukraine is valid. In fact, the European countries currently provide more overall aid than the United States. But by playing into the idea that the United States must choose between solving problems at home and fighting aggression abroad, Republicans are prepping the ground for what could amount to abandoning the Ukrainians at the worst possible moment.

“That would dramatically undercut the foundational support of the Ukrainians right at the time that they are showing some real momentum in the counteroffensive”, said Ryan. “The signaling and the message that sends, for us to back away in this critical time, not only resonates in Europe but resonates in the Asia-Pacific as well”.

This is the message Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky brings to Washington this week as he meets with senators after speaking on Tuesday at the United Nations in New York. In contrast to the warm welcome he received on Capitol Hill last December, he was not invited to speak to a joint session of Congress during this trip. House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said he has “questions” for Zelensky about accountability and the future of the war.

The governments in Kyiv and Washington should be honest about the fact the war is not going to be over anytime soon and that more sacrifices will be necessary. Then, they should ramp up their efforts to convince lawmakers and the people they represent that the costs of abandoning Ukraine aid are far greater than the costs of continuing to support it.

Josh Rogin is a columnist for the Global Opinions section of The Washington Post. He writes about foreign policy and national security. Rogin is also a political analyst for CNN. He is the author of the book Chaos Under Heaven: Trump, Xi, and the Battle for the 21st Century.

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