President Biden on Thursday unveiled a sweeping, new $33 billion spending package that would provide military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, asking Congress to swiftly approve funds he said were crucial to helping Kyiv prevail in what may be a decisive phase in its war with Russia.
Biden also proposed liquidating the assets of Russian oligarchs and donating the proceeds to Ukraine, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the United States would “strongly support” Sweden and Finland if they chose to join NATO. Taken together, the moves marked a renewed public commitment to stay in the fight for the long haul, even as Biden signaled a recognition that Americans at some point might tire of spending billions of dollars on a faraway war.
The spending request was far higher than the commitment the United States has made to date, and is meant to provide Ukraine what it needs in what is expected to be a punishing fight for the country’s east. U.S. leaders are increasingly open about their hopes for not just helping Ukraine survive the crucial battle ahead, but weakening Russia longer-term and preventing any future invasions.
At the same time, Russia stepped up its own rhetoric, with its foreign ministry accusing Western nations of inciting Ukrainian attacks and warning of a “tough response” as Russia faces a series of mysterious fires.
“The West openly calls on Kyiv to attack Russia, using, among other things, weapons received from NATO countries,” spokesperson Maria Zakharova told journalists in Moscow. “We advise you not to further test our patience.”
Ukraine has neither denied nor claimed responsibility for the explosions and fires at strategic sites. Significant Ukrainian attacks into Russian territory would mark a major escalation in the war.
The head of the United Nations cast the deepening war in moral terms as he became the latest global leader to visit Kyiv in a show of support. “The war is an absurdity in the 21st century,” Secretary General António Guterres said. “The war is evil.”
Guterres’ visit followed talks with President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, after which the Russian leader agreed in principle to permit the United Nations and the International Committee of the Red Cross to assist in evacuating civilians from the besieged port city of Mariupol.
Biden’s new funding request includes $20 billion in military assistance for Ukraine, $8.5 billion in economic assistance and $3 billion in humanitarian aid, among other pots of money.
The economic assistance would help Ukraine pay for food, energy and health care, while the humanitarian assistance is intended to buffer a growing international hunger crisis. Ukraine’s government has asked for at least $2 billion per month from the United States to meet its short-term economic needs.
The military aid — including artillery, armored vehicles, anti-armor capabilities and advanced air defense systems — could help Ukraine in the battle for the country’s east, which military officials say will initially be fought at a distance as Russia seeks to trap Ukrainian forces. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday said the Biden administration was studying additional ways to provide air defense and artillery systems to Ukraine.
The fight in the east, or Donbas region, is expected to accelerate in coming days. That may be one reason a significant number of Russian troops are now withdrawing from Mariupol, the Pentagon said.
A senior defense official, who spoke to reporters on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said that Ukrainian resistance remains in Mariupol despite Russian claims of having captured the city. “They’re continuing to pound Mariupol with strikes, both airstrikes and missile strikes,” the official said. “You don’t do that if you think it belongs to you.”
Local officials on Thursday reported heavy attacks on Mariupol’s strategic Azovstal steel plant, which has become a Ukrainian redoubt amid a massive Russian assault. Mykhailo Vershynin, chief of the Donetsk region patrol police, told The Washington Post that Russian forces were “chaotically” striking the plant, with bombs or rockets every few minutes. “What happened tonight, that was unprecedented. Air attacks like that have never happened before,” Vershynin said.
Local authorities have said that Russia has prevented civilians sheltering at the plant from departing.
Biden, asked about concerns that Russia could view the latest actions as more directly confrontational, the president responded, “We are prepared for whatever they do.”
He called Russia’s recent threatening references to its nuclear capabilities irresponsible. “They do concern me because it shows the desperation that Russia is feeling about their abject failure in being able to do what they set out to do,” Biden said. “And so I think it’s more of a reflection not of the truth, but of their failure.”
The White House’s requests to Congress will now be subject of intense wrangling on Capitol Hill as lawmakers face a crunch of spending fights in a worsening economy. Only $250 million remains from the $3.5 billion in military security assistance to Ukraine that Congress authorized in March, according the White House.
The administration is planning to mount what press secretary Jen Psaki called a “full-court press” to secure the funding. Biden is traveling to Alabama next week to tour a Lockheed Martin plant where Javelin antitank weapons are made, and he also plans to privately press members of Congress while Cabinet members make a public push.
Biden’s proposal to allow U.S. authorities to liquidate the assets of Russian oligarchs and donate the proceeds to Ukraine would require broad new legal powers. But the president suggested he saw a powerful symbolism in the move.
“We’re going to seize their yachts, their luxury homes and other ill-begotten gains,” he said.
The White House did not release details of the proposal but said it would improve the government’s ability to send seized funds to Ukraine. Under current law, the United States can typically only freeze — not seize or liquidate — the assets of sanctioned individuals.
Civil liberties groups had raised concerns that prior congressional proposals to do so ran afoul of constitutional protections by circumventing judicial procedures. It was not immediately clear how the White House would seek to change the existing statute without violating those protections.
At a hearing Thursday, Attorney General Merrick Garland said some of the money in the proposed aid package would be used for the Justice Department to “carry forward” current investigations of Russian oligarchs.
The department’s KleptoCapture Task Force expects to conduct “at least 30 complex investigations over time,” Garland told the House Appropriations Committee. The additional money was needed in part because even if the U.S. government seizes an asset like a yacht, it must pay to maintain such assets until the government can sell it, Garland said.
Russian officials vowed to retaliate against the White House move and urged the affected oligarchs to take legal action.
Zakharova, speaking Thursday on the pro-Kremlin “Solovyov Live” program on YouTube, described the Biden proposal to funnel frozen Russian funds to Ukraine as “idiotic.”
“This is a bandit practice,” Russian senator Vladimir Dzhabarov told state news outlet RIA Novosti. “We need to raise the inadmissibility of such a U.S. policy in relation to Russian assets in the U.N. Security Council, to draw attention to it.”
The influential Russian senator Andrey Klimov told the same outlet that “such things should not be tolerated.”
“The businessmen themselves need to sue the Americans,” he said, adding that Moscow should consider retaliating with a similar measure targeting Americans.
From the beginning of the invasion, the Biden administration has led an international financial attack on those close to Putin, including by seizing assets such as ships, luxury real estate and private aircraft. Global law enforcement has also ramped up the hunt for their assets.
The effectiveness of such measures in deterring the war and helping the Ukrainians has been less clear. The amount of Russian oligarch assets potentially available to U.S. authorities is unknown, in part because federal law enables the oligarchs to effectively disguise their assets. The U.S. Treasury, the administration said in a statement, “has sanctioned and blocked vessels and aircraft worth over $1 billion, as well as frozen hundreds of millions of dollars of assets belonging to Russian elites in U.S. bank accounts.”
Earlier this month, U.S. authorities seized a 255-foot, $90 million yacht in Spain owned by Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg. Spanish authorities moved to freeze the vessel after the Justice Department obtained a seizure warrant seeking forfeiture in federal court in Washington, alleging U.S. bank fraud, money-laundering and sanctions violations.
These are relatively minor figures, compared with the $84 billion in damage Ukraine has suffered to its civilian infrastructure alone, according to estimates by economists at the Kyiv School of Economics. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky last week said his country had so far suffered $550 billion in economic damage since Russia’s Feb. 24 invasion. Some Russia experts have also said the oligarch sanctions could backfire by alienating Russia’s financial elite from the West and leading them to closer ties with the Kremlin.
But the administration’s move comes in response to growing congressional clamor to redirect the oligarchs’ assets. The House passed a mostly symbolic bill Wednesday urging Biden to liquidate assets worth more than $5 million belonging to those targeted by U.S. sanctions and send the proceeds to Ukraine. It cruised through with bipartisan support in a 417-to-8 vote. A similar Senate proposal has backing from Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Roger Wicker (R-Miss.).
A prior version of the House bill would have gone further, giving the president the direct authority to liquidate the assets, but it was scuttled after the American Civil Liberties Union warned it could run afoul of the Constitution’s due-process protections because it did not allow its targets to challenge the government’s actions in court.
ACLU officials said the measure probably would have been struck down by the courts, giving Russia a potential propaganda victory over the United States. The House bill says the funds should be used for weapons for Ukraine’s military, the country’s reconstruction and humanitarian aid for refugees.
“The question is where the jurisdiction is, and do these oligarchs have standing to protect their property,” said Ariel Cohen, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council Eurasia Center and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. “I’m not necessarily in favor of property being seized without due process. … What is the source of law to seize, let alone dispose of, these assets?”
On a call with reporters, a senior administration official declined to offer specifics but said the new measures would include mechanisms for judicial review.
“With those safeguards, we feel confident it does provide constitutional requirements,” said the official said, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the administration’s request.
John Hudson, Dan Lamothe, Timothy Bella, Spencer S. Hsu, Devlin Barrett, and Sammy Westfall in Washington; Annabelle Timsit in London; Anthony Faiola in Riga, Latvia; David L. Stern in Mukachevo, Ukraine; and Andrew Jeong in Seoul contributed to this report.