Several pieces of good news have been buried amid the overall doomsday coverage about the future of US support for Ukraine.
First, the Continuing Resolution approved on September 30 separated the issue of general government funding from the issue of Ukraine aid.
That’s a positive. Regardless of Ukraine aid, Congress needs to find a sustainable path forward on the overall US budget deficit (which is huge at about $1.5 trillion), and on congressional leadership now that the Republican House Speaker has been removed. Once Congress does so, however, it sets the conditions for a clean vote on Ukraine aid as a standalone issue, without being conflated with wider concerns over the budget.
Second, the October 5 ousting of Speaker Kevin McCarthy was not about Ukraine aid, but about a handful of House members objecting to his cross-party Republican-Democrat deal to approve the general budgetary continuing resolution.
One of his leading Republican critics, Representative Matt Gaetz, exercised his right to introduce a Motion to Vacate under House rules that were approved when McCarthy was first elected. McCarthy did not have the votes to stop the motion, and the Democrats did not come to his rescue.
Looking forward, there is no chance of a Democratic Speaker being elected, meaning the next Speaker will also be a Republican. Any new Republican Speaker, however, may well link his or her assumption of the gavel to a change in this destabilizing house rule — probably by modestly increasing the number of members required to file a Motion to Vacate.
Third, Ukraine aid is very clearly in the US national interest (see below) and enjoys the support of the vast majorities of both parties, in both the House and the Senate; a September 27 House vote showed 126 Republicans backing Ukraine aid and 93 opposed. The votes are there, if a supplemental appropriation can be brought to the floor in both chambers. And with a rule change, the risk of another Motion to Vacate a new Speaker is considerably smaller.
Republican House members should be confident that Republican voters can be convinced to support aid to Ukraine; it is clearly framed as an American national interest: when GOP Presidential candidate Nikki Haley witheringly deconstructed fellow candidate Vivek Ramaswamy’s calls to abandon Ukraine, she was greeted with spontaneous applause from a Republican audience. Moreover, the outrage over the October 7 terrorist attacks on Israel should be a reminder that no acts of indiscriminate killing of civilians, whether by Palestinians or by Russians, will ever find favor with the American people.
Fourth, the questions raised by all but the most extreme Members of Congress about renewed aid for Ukraine are perfectly legitimate and deserve honest answers. Representative Jim Jordan, one of the Republican candidates for Speaker, put it simply: “What is the goal? What is the objective?” he asked. “Second question: if you can tell us what the goal is, how is the money being spent? How can we account for it?”
These are good questions — to which there are good answers. But these answers need to be articulated clearly and forthrightly by the President in defending his administration’s request for a renewed aid package, something that has not happened to date. Let us hope the President’s address to the nation on this topic within the coming days answers these questions definitively.
Concerning the goal, we must be absolutely clear: Putin’s effort to reestablish the Russian Empire, which threatens all of Europe, including NATO allies that were formerly occupied by Russia, must be stopped in Ukraine. Russian forces must be defeated and withdrawn from all Ukrainian territory. Anything less will set the stage for future war in Europe, in which the United States may face a treaty obligation to defend NATO allies. We do not want to be forced into that scenario. Aid to Ukraine is not charity, it is self-preservation.
US military aid to Ukraine will stop Putin’s crazed colonial ambitions without the deployment of US ground troops and the loss of American lives. We provide the equipment, and Ukrainians do the fighting – to defend themselves, defeat Russia, and remove the threat to Europe. This is why US aid to Ukraine is a fundamental American national security interest.
Moreover, US aid to Ukraine is highly efficient. By spending less than 5% of the annual US defense budget on aid to Ukraine, we are seeing Ukraine destroy at least half of Russia’s conventional military capability (Russia has now lost more than 12,500 items of heavy equipment including tanks), which is reducing the threat to NATO and the United States. This is an exceptional investment for the US and our allies.
The oft-repeated phrase, that the United States will support Ukraine, “as long as it takes,” must be jettisoned.
It indicates an endless spigot of American support without indicating a clear goal or any sense of urgency. It’s reasonable to ask for as long as “what” takes — for more Ukrainians to die, or for the West to succumb to fatigue? Better would be, “We will do whatever it takes to help Ukraine defeat Russian forces in Ukraine as effectively and quickly as possible.”
Concerning accountability, Jordan is again absolutely right. We must have strong measures in place to ensure that taxpayer dollars are not wasted, or, worse yet, lost in a maze of corruption in Ukraine. Fortunately, we have very good protections in place already – and we should always be prepared to do more if warranted.
These should be discussed publicly and fully embraced by the administration, and any findings should be presented to Congress without reservation. It is a valid concern that is already being addressed and should be subject to constant review.
On military aid in particular — where US support is irreplaceable — the good news for taxpayers is that our funding stays within the United States.
The money goes to the Pentagon, which in turn pays the US defense industry and transfers arms – not dollars – to Ukraine. There is relatively little risk of corruption in this system. The Ukrainians are using these arms to good effect in their defense against Russian aggression, and the United States has good monitoring mechanisms in place to ensure the arms reach the troops at the front. Moreover, given the existential fight in which Ukrainians find themselves, any illicit diversion of American military aid would be seen as treason, with perpetrators suffering the harshest consequences.
The real issue facing Congress and the administration is the level of security assistance funding requested: $24 billion.
This level of funding is insufficient to cover the fight against Russian forces for all of 2024. By lowballing the number, the administration has ensured that there will need to be additional votes on Ukraine aid during the course of the US Presidential election campaign. This is not in the interests of either political party.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin should be pressed to give a credible number of how much aid will be required to cover all of 2024. Without prejudging his military advice, Congress should expect this figure to be in the $60bn-$80bn range. This is still a bargain when it comes to advancing US security interests in the European theater.
Congress should agree on a number sufficient to cover all of next year. In addition, the administration should cease the process of making a public announcement every time the President exercises his drawdown authority within such a Congressionally approved limit. These drip-by-drip announcements every two to three weeks give a false impression to the American public that we are endlessly shelling out new money for Ukraine, rather than operating strictly within an existing Congressionally approved funding level and policy mandate.
Making these decisions will require greater leadership from President Biden and the administration, as well as from the new Speaker of the House. The American interest in renewing military aid for Ukraine is very strong.
It will be supported by the American people if our leaders set a clear goal, assure measures of accountability, and make the fundamental case that defeating Russian forces in Ukraine is an act of self-interest, not merely an act of charity for suffering Ukrainians.
Ambassador Kurt Volker is a Distinguished Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis. A leading expert in US foreign and national security policy, he served as US Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations from 2017-2019, and as US Ambassador to NATO from 2008-2009.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.