Supporters of Ukraine aid on Capitol Hill are warning that the country’s counteroffensive could falter — and quickly — if Congress does not pass additional assistance or if the government shuts down.
“It is very clear that if we were to have a government shutdown or to pass a CR with no Ukraine aid, that the effect on Ukraine would be very quick and devastating,” Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer told reporters following a classified briefing with Biden administration officials Wednesday evening. “We cannot let [Russian President Vladimir] Putin win. Without aid, Ukraine could run the very strong risk of being defeated.”
Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz., who just returned from a trip to Ukraine to assess the progress of the counteroffensive, said “they feel like it’s going well” and that the White House’s assessment was similar. But without further help, he said, the impact would be “catastrophic.” He’s part of a group of senators who have called for new weapons systems to be sent to their aid, including long-range missiles called ATACMS.
“They cannot be successful without our support, I am convinced of that,” Kelly told reporters.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said on the Senate floor that cutting off assistance would be “far more ruinous than our disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan.”
Their comments came in the middle of a standoff over additional aid for Ukraine — the White House has asked for $24 billion more in security, economic, and humanitarian assistance— and the rising prospect of a government shutdown.
White House national security spokesman John Kirby said Wednesday that additional assistance would be critical to getting Ukraine the equipment and weapons it needs through the winter months, when the cold weather makes it more difficult to move on the ground and conduct air operations.
Ukrainian President Volodymr Zelenskyy will enter the fray on Thursday as he heads to Capitol Hill, the Pentagon, and White House to provide updates on the slow-moving counteroffensive and make the case for more assistance.
Zelenskyy will encounter Republican Ukraine aid critics, like Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., who told reporters Wednesday that he heard from administration officials no clear path for Kyiv to win the war and dismissed arguments from McConnell and others in favor of keeping up support. “The argument always shifts to whatever is at hand to get us to spend more of the American people’s money without any strategy for victory,” Hawley said.
While McConnell likened the consequences of a Ukraine withdrawal to the pullout from Afghanistan, Hawley used the same conflict as a cautionary tale as well in order to rebut the Republican leader’s argument in favor of assistance.
“Go through and listen to all these comments about what would happen if we didn’t keep spending the American people’s money,” he said. “Take out ‘Ukraine’ and insert ‘Iraq’ or insert ‘Afghanistan’ and you would get exactly what George W. Bush said for years and other people after him about why we have to stay indefinitely in those countries. It’s the same recycled arguments.”
Lawmakers who support Ukraine seem to be getting more worried that there won’t be more aid passed by Congress. These dire warnings are a sign of that. At the same time, they need to hold out hope for progress to justify the investment, and Zelenskyy has argued Ukrainian forces are on the verge of real — if painfully slow — gains just weeks before the changing seasons make it harder to continue major operations.
The White House always insists there is bipartisan support and bicameral support for Ukraine in Congress. That’s true, but even getting a vote on Ukraine funding in the House is going to be difficult, given a growing number of conservatives opposed to additional assistance.
“It depends on whether or not the dysfunction that’s occurring in the House right now can be overcome,” Sen. Mike Rounds, R-S.D. told me when I asked how challenging it would be to approve more assistance. “In the Senate, I don’t think we have issues. I think in the House is where the challenge is going to be.”
This also isn’t the last time this fight will play out, barring some major shift in the conflict. The Biden administration says the $24 billion they have required will take care of Ukraine for the first quarter of the coming fiscal year, which means another tug-of-war over funding is basically right around the corner after the New Year.
Room for Disagreement
The White House is still projecting confidence Congress will ultimately approve additional assistance. “The president is confident that support will continue,” Kirby said.