President Biden expressed confidence Wednesday that next year’s Congress — likely with at least one chamber under Republican control – will maintain robust U.S. support for Ukraine. But his certainty is not shared by many on Capitol Hill and in Kyiv. The struggle inside the GOP could have a massive impact on Ukraine’s fight for survival against Russia.
At his post-election news conference, Biden defended his administration’s support for Kyiv, maintaining that he had not given Ukraine a “blank check” and bragging that “there’s a lot of things that Ukraine wants we didn’t do.” He also said that he expects Republicans in the House, likely to be led next year by Rep. Kevin McCarthy (Calif.), to come out in favor of continued aid to Ukraine.
“I would be surprised if Leader McCarthy even has a majority of his Republican colleagues who say they’re not going to fund the legitimate defensive needs of Ukraine,” he said.
Biden either doesn’t know or doesn’t want to acknowledge that there’s no agreement in Congress on what the words “legitimate” or “defensive” mean in this context. What’s clear is that the congressional path to approving new Ukraine aid next year will be rocky.
According to several lawmakers and senior congressional staffers, McCarthy and other GOP House leaders are already discussing how to alter the Ukraine aid package in the next Congress to respond to a wide array of concerns within their caucus. Some far-right lawmakers are calling for a complete cutoff of aid to Ukraine. But many Republicans are looking to cut much of the economic assistance while keeping or even increasing the military component — something of a compromise.
But cutting the economic aid now, most of which is direct support to the Ukrainian government, would be ill-timed and dangerous, Ukrainian officials told me. The Ukrainian economy could break down without continued support from the United States, Europe and the International Monetary Fund. If that happens, their military can’t fight, they said.
“The financial support for our public finances in our eyes … is a part of security and military support,” Taras Kachka, Ukraine’s deputy minister of economy, told me. “Without this financial support, our public finances would collapse. And it means that this is immediate victory for Russia.”
Ukraine needs $38 billion in direct economic support next year, Yulia Svyrydenko, Ukraine’s minister of economy and first vice prime minister, told me. Ukraine’s economy shrank by 35 percent this year and taxes cover only about half of the government’s budget, she said. Ukraine is also facing attacks on its energy grid and infrastructure even as it tries to launch “early recovery” efforts such as building houses for returning refugees and financing new businesses.
“We really appreciate the help you provided, but for us it’s very important to keep our economic system running, and that is the most essential thing for us right now,” she said.
The United States has pledged about $12 billion in direct economic aid to Ukraine for 2022, out of $54 billion in total aid so far. Congressional sources said that a temporary spending bill in December will likely keep the economic aid going at the rate of $1.5 billion per month until the spring. That’s when the congressional showdown over the money will come to a head.
Republicans have legitimate concerns about how this aid has been handled. Conservative groups such as the Heritage Foundation argue, with some merit, that U.S. aid to Ukraine has lacked sufficient debate, oversight and accountability. Many point out (rightly) that the European Union has failed to pull its weight. The E.U. has promised robust financial support for Ukraine in 2023, but its past pledges have gone largely unfulfilled.
While there are many GOP leaders who internally defend economic assistance, there’s much less support for a separate bucket of humanitarian aid, which is largely administered by the State Department and USAID, aides said.
Several GOP officials told me that they were confident, like Biden, that in the end both military and economic aid will continue. Others aren’t so sure. Attacks on the assistance program by allies of former president Donald Trump are continuing to erode GOP support, Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.) told me. And with a slim majority, whoever becomes House speaker will face an internal GOP revolt if they don’t cut Ukraine aid, he said.
“Putin has a backup plan if he can’t defeat Ukraine militarily,” Murphy said. “He is going to keep the war going long enough to bankrupt Ukraine and force them to sue for a humiliating peace. That means U.S. support for Ukraine is half-baked if it doesn’t address both the military and economic threats Russia presents.”
The costs of supporting Kyiv financially are small compared to the costs for the United States and the world if Ukraine falls. If Ukraine collapses economically, that would exacerbate the energy crisis, the food crisis, the refugee crisis and the global economic slowdown. Let’s hope that the new Congress doesn’t succumb to this penny-wise, pound-foolish approach.