President Biden and Congress on Thursday deepened U.S. involvement in the global effort to reject the Russian invasion of Ukraine, with the Senate voting to finalize more than $40 billion in new military and humanitarian assistance while Biden and top lawmakers lent firm public support to what could be the most significant expansion of NATO in nearly two decades.
The events came as America and its allies pivot to planning for a longer war in Ukraine, the scope of which has narrowed since the initial Russian invasion three months ago but whose duration appears increasingly lasting as the fighting enters a grueling new phase. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has implored the West to provide his military with a more sophisticated arsenal to wage a protracted battle in the east and south of the country against the forces of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Meanwhile, by moving swiftly to back the admission of Finland and Sweden to NATO, U.S. leaders are not waiting for a military resolution to render the invasion a strategic defeat for Putin, an effort highlighted Thursday in visits to the White House and the Capitol by Finnish President Sauli Niinisto and Swedish Prime Minister Magdalena Andersson.
“In the face of aggression, NATO has not grown weaker or more divided. It has grown stronger, more united,” Biden said after meeting with the two leaders, calling the decision of Finland and Sweden to renounce decades of nonalignment following the Russian invasion “a victory for democracy in action.”
In a separate written statement on the aid package, Biden thanked Congress “for sending a clear bipartisan message to the world that the people of the United States stand together with the brave people of Ukraine as they defend their democracy and freedom.”
The bill, passed on an 86-to-11 vote Thursday, provides a combined $20 billion in military aid that is expected to finance the transfer of advanced weapons systems, such as Patriot antiaircraft missiles and long-range artillery. Also included in the bill is more than $8 billion in general economic support for Ukraine, nearly $5 billion in global food aid to address potential food shortages sparked by the collapse of the Ukrainian agricultural economy, and more than $1 billion in combined support for refugees.
As the Senate was voting in Washington, senior allied military officials met at NATO headquarters in Brussels to hammer out a plan for how military forces will be arrayed in Eastern Europe. Those decisions are expected to be finalized in late June at a NATO summit in Madrid.
Air Force Gen. Tod Wolters, the supreme allied commander of NATO, said Thursday there are now 40,000 NATO ground troops based in Eastern Europe, backed by more than 120 jets on high alert and 20 ships as military aid continues to flow into Ukraine. “Ukraine is resisting this invasion with courage and determination,” he said. “We support them.”
After the Senate vote, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a statement that he was authorizing a 10th transfer of about $100 million in weapons and equipment to the Ukrainian military from the Defense Department through an authority delegated to him from Biden. That figure represents what was left in money approved by Congress before Thursday.
At the Pentagon, spokesman John Kirby said that the $100 million package will include 18 more howitzer artillery pieces, vehicles to tow them, and three more counterartillery radar systems. Once transferred, the howitzers will join 90 others that the United States previously sent to Ukraine. Allies, including France and Canada, also have sent artillery, and additional U.S. howitzers could be sent to Ukraine in the future, Kirby said. “Artillery,” he said, “has clearly proven to be a critical element for the Ukrainians in this fight.”
Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who attended the meeting at NATO headquarters, spoke Thursday by telephone with his Russian counterpart, Gen. Valery Gerasimov, for the first time since February, ahead of the Russian invasion. They discussed “several security-related issues of concern,” Pentagon officials said in a statement, while declining to release more details in accordance with an agreement between the two generals.
After Russia failed to seize the Ukrainian capital of Kyiv and most other major cities last month, the Kremlin has narrowed its aspirations to focus heavily on the Donbas region in the eastern part of the country. But even with more than 100 battalion tactical groups still in Ukraine, Russian forces have struggled to make progress.
A senior U.S. defense official, speaking on the condition of anonymity under ground rules set by the Pentagon, said Thursday that Ukrainian forces continue to claw back territory that Russia seized around the northeast city of Kharkiv. Russian forces also are continuing an assault on the city of Slovyansk but running into stiff Ukrainian resistance in the area.
Russian forces have separated some units into smaller formations after earlier battlefield failures and attacked smaller villages and hamlets in the region, the second defense official said. The fighting already has grown “very intimate,” with Russians and Ukrainians trading blows, and sometimes control of villages, by the day. “This is a knife fight,” the senior defense official said.
While support for the new aid package was strongly bipartisan, Senate leaders were forced to maneuver through a week’s worth of procedural obstacles set by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who raised objections to the bill on fiscal and geopolitical grounds. His delaying tactics vexed leaders of both parties, who had sought to fast-track the bill to passage last week using a process that needs the consent of all 100 senators.
“This should have already been over and done with, but it is repugnant that one member of the other side” chose “to make a show and obstruct Ukraine funding knowing full well he could not actually stop its passage,” Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Wednesday. “For Sen. Paul to delay Ukraine funding for purely political motives is to only strengthen Putin’s hand.”
Paul defended his objection in a Tuesday floor speech, calling U.S. support for Ukraine “a noble cause, no doubt, a cause for which I have great sympathy and support, but a cause for which the Constitution does not sanction or approve of.” He added, “Yes, our national security is threatened, not by Russia’s war on Ukraine but by Congress’s war on the American taxpayer.”
His views generated pushback from inside his own party, including from a fellow Kentucky Republican, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who argued Thursday that the aid commitment “goes far beyond charity.”
“The future of America’s security and core strategic interests will be shaped by the outcome of this fight,” McConnell said, arguing that a Russian victory would threaten other U.S. allies and embolden China. “Anyone concerned about the cost of supporting a Ukrainian victory should consider the much larger costs should Ukraine lose.”
While only Paul opposed fast-tracking the bill, 10 other Republicans joined him in opposing it in the Thursday vote: Sens. Marsha Blackburn (Tenn.), John Boozman (Ark.), Mike Braun (Ind.), Mike Crapo (Idaho), Bill Hagerty (Tenn.), Josh Hawley (Mo.), Mike Lee (Utah), Cynthia M. Lummis (Wyo.), Roger Marshall (Kan.) and Tommy Tuberville (Ala.).
Many said in interviews that they shared the fiscal objections from Paul. “I don’t like the idea that we’re footing the bill over there,” Braun said. “The Europeans, it’s in their own backyard, and they’re being very stingy now.”
At least some echoed the rhetoric of former president Donald Trump, who opposed the bill in a statement last week that decried the ongoing baby formula shortage and declared “America first!”
“I want to do everything we can to help Ukrainian people, but what folks are concerned back home is our own problems, our own challenges,” Marshall said. “I think that America should be first.”
Schumer sharply rebuked that thinking in a Thursday speech, accusing the 11 Republican senators of “using the same soft-on-Putin playbook used by former president Trump.” While key lawmakers said it was too early to predict what further resources Congress might need to commit to the Ukraine conflict, they acknowledged more would almost certainly be needed.
Yet the next Ukraine issue to reach Capitol Hill this year may not be funding but Finland and Sweden joining NATO. The Russian invasion prompted a seismic reassessment among Finns and Swedes, who had long been wary of joining the transatlantic alliance out of a fear of provoking Russia, with whom the two nations share a border.
While the exact timeline of their admission remains in flux, in part because of objections lodged this week by NATO member Turkey, U.S. political and military leaders expressed clear support for a rapid process. Should their applications be ratified, the alliance would gain the most population since the 2004 admission of seven former Warsaw Pact states and the most gross domestic product since the 1998 admission of the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland.
Wolters said that NATO officials are “excited” about Finland and Sweden potentially joining the alliance, while Schumer and McConnell offered assurances of a quick ratification to Niinisto and Andersson during a luncheon at the Capitol held moments after the Ukraine bill passed Thursday.
Speaking in the White House Rose Garden alongside Biden and Niinisto, Andersson said that Sweden chose its new path at a moment that recalled “the darkest days of European history.” She added, “I must say that during dark times, it is great to be among close friends.”
Alex Horton, Karoun Demirjian and Missy Ryan contributed to this report.