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In Kyiv, U.S. midterms, and need for aid, cast shadow on battlefield gains

Ukrainian soldiers greet each other alongside a Russian tank in the Kherson region of southern Ukraine on Oct. 6. (Heidi Levine for The Washington Post).
7 min

KYIV, Ukraine — As American officials pore over maps tracking developments in Ukraine’s counteroffensive against Russia, their Ukrainian counterparts are monitoring a different kind of contest back in the United States: the upcoming midterm congressional elections.

In Kyiv, Ukrainians voice hope, and some apprehension, that next month’s legislative polls won’t undercut the staggering flow of U.S. weapons and security aid that Washington has authorized since the start of President Vladimir Putin’s Feb 24. invasion. And they warn that a softening of Republican sentiment has the potential to sap a recent surge in battlefield momentum.

Uncertainty about future American support is intensifying as pollsters predict that Republicans will retake control of the House of Representatives. Some Republican lawmakers and candidates have expressed displeasure with giant aid sums, citing competing security concerns about China, domestic priorities, and the need for greater oversight.

Daria Kaleniuk, an anti-corruption activist who led a delegation of female Ukrainian fighters to Washington last month, noted that nearly all House Republicans had voted against a stopgap funding bill that included $12 billion for Ukraine.

“So it means that we are getting into this danger waters of making Ukraine a partisan issue, and support for Ukraine a partisan issue,” Kaleniuk said.

Fears, however tentative, that American support could falter, are creating a sense of added pressure in Kyiv.

A senior Ukrainian official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak candidly, said that Ukraine’s near-total dependency on foreign military and economic aid meant that its military must quickly recapture as much Russian-controlled territory as possible before any potential softening of Western support.

“The U.S. midterms are one of the factors that have us concerned about the winter,” the official said. “Russia will gain an advantage with the new Congress and with Europeans as they blackmail them on energy policy. That’s why the current offensive is so important.”

U.S., allies to increase pressure on Russia following annexation

Other Ukrainian officials said they remained confident that U.S. assistance would continue.

Oleksander Zavytnevych, who heads the national security and defense committee of Ukraine’s parliament, the Verkhovna Rada, said U.S. public support for Ukraine in the war remained strong nationwide despite the reluctance of some Republicans, and so he was not worried that U.S. help would drop off.

“Which politician does not support the opinion of his voter?” Zavytnevych said. “After all, the support provided by the United States is a certain strategic course” for America’s own security.

President Biden, in a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky this week, repeated his pledge that Washington would support Ukraine “as long as it takes,” suggesting a long-term campaign to supply arms needed to push Russian troops back from occupied cities and towns, and prevent Putin’s illegal annexation of four Ukrainian provinces from being carried out on the ground.

Since February, the Biden administration has sent Ukraine more than $17 billion of military aid, including missile systems and drones. The White House has frequently faced calls from lawmakers in both parties for faster and greater assistance, which, combined with ongoing appeals from Kyiv, helped yield an expanding supply of heavier, longer-range weaponry for the fight.

But as American consumers grapple with inflation and a slowing economy, polls indicate that fewer Republicans believe the United States has a responsibility to protect Ukraine. An August poll by Morning Consult showed that U.S. concern about the war has declined more quickly among Republicans than among Democrats.

For Ukrainians, the moment echoes the toxic political dispute over the Trump administration’s withholding of military aid to Ukraine, which culminated in the then-president’s 2019 impeachment. This time, Ukrainians are determined to stay out of the partisan crossfire.

“It’s not our business to discuss or to help somebody” in American politics, said Vasily Chaly, who served as Ukrainian ambassador in Washington from 2015 to 2019. “Our business is to keep a strong relationship with American people.”

Chaly recalled the intense debate over providing arms to Ukraine, then locked in a war with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern Donbas region, during his tenure in Washington. The sale of small arms began in 2015 and 2016 under the Obama administration. In 2017, the Trump administration authorized the provision of Javelin antitank missiles.

Since its start, largely bipartisan U.S. backing has defied the prevailing animosity in Congress.

Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. James M. Inhofe (R-Okla.), the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee are among the Republican leaders on Capitol Hill who have championed military aid to Ukraine.

Winter nears in Ukraine — and a battle of stamina awaits

But other Republicans, including Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Missouri) and Roger Williams (R-Tx.), have expressed reluctance. Influential conservative pundits such as Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, meanwhile, have questioned where money for Ukraine is going and warned of ‘mission creep’ in U.S. support.

That has led even some Republicans to fret about the staying power of American support for Ukraine.

“I hope the safety and security aspect will win out,” said one Republican congressional aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to express his opinion. “But I think there is a question mark.”

While Chaly is among the Ukrainians pushing for sophisticated equipment including tanks and fighter jets, he said he empathized with some U.S. lawmakers’ focus on domestic issues.

“Every country should pay for health, for education, for the internal programs, for jobs — it’s absolutely understandable,” he said. “But if you do not secure your country and your people, you can’t think about development.”

Ukrainians also fear that Russia will use the election to chip away at the bipartisan support, potentially using strategies like those the U.S. government determined to be Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Kyiv Mayor Vitali Klitschko suggested Russian media narratives and disinformation could be swaying American lawmakers to Ukraine’s detriment. “Of course I worry that some politicians don’t receive the right information,” Klitschko said. “Russians use the media so strong against the world.”

The Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) last month posted, then deleted, a tweet that echoed Kremlin language and called for a halt to “gift-giving to Ukraine.” It later issued a statement reaffirming its stance on U.S. assistance. “We must oppose Putin, but American taxpayers should not be shouldering the vast majority of the cost,” it said.

As his troops retreat, Russian defense chief comes under fire at home

Republican officials, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, cautioned that the recent spending vote did not necessarily indicate a big reduction of support, noting that Ukraine aid was just one of the items the bill financed. They also said Republican support may be buoyed by Ukraine’s military gains or Russian atrocities and nuclear threats.

Oleksandr Kornienko, deputy speaker of the Rada, noted that Putin devoted much of a speech last week on his annexations to a long list of Russian grievances against the U.S. and the West, signaling his larger ambitions and animosity.

“But the war is happening in Ukraine, in the territory of Ukraine. Our people are dying,” Kornienko said. “Therefore, it is in the interest of the civilized world to continue helping Ukraine defeat Putin on Ukrainian territory … so that it does not spill over into Europe and other countries of the world.”

As U.S. assistance adds up, lawmakers of each party are calling for more robust oversight in hopes of averting the waste and diversion that characterized much of the enormous U.S. aid sums provided to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ukraine is working to intensify accountability efforts, standing up a new parliamentary oversight body and organizing visits to weapons depots, according to Zavytnevych. So far, he said, there have been no substantiated complaints about diversion or misuse of foreign arms.

While they recognize what America’s election results may bring, Ukrainians continue to make the case for the global cost of inaction.

“What we can do as Ukrainians is just keep explaining to the world properly what Russians are doing,” said Kaleniuk, who heads an anti-corruption group. “If [we] are properly armed, we are able to win, and this war has to be won faster. Otherwise, it will cost too much for American people.”

John Hudson in Washington contributed to this report.