US support for Ukraine is about to undergo a significant test. This is playing out not on the Republican presidential debate stage or at the White House, but on Capitol Hill, in the Republican controlled House of Representatives.
The prevailing view is that US support for Ukraine will remain solid as long as Joe Biden is president, so at least until January 2025. But this overlooks the fact that it is congress that controls the purse strings. Since taking office in January, the Republican controlled congress has not passed a single Ukraine funding bill. To be fair, the White House has not asked it to, until now.
The new Republican majority, led by Kevin McCarthy, is incredibly narrow, giving McCarthy few votes to spare. This makes Ukraine funding problematic for McCarthy because the Republican Party is increasingly divided in its support for Ukraine, as was vividly demonstrated in the recent Republican presidential debate. This is part of a deeper rift on foreign policy, where Trumpian neo-isolationists clash with the hawkish internationalist and neoconservative schools embodied by McCain and Reagan. But this has meant that McCarthy, a weak speaker desperate to keep his caucus united, will be loathe to bring any divisive bills to the floor, such as Ukraine funding.
Before the previous congress led by Nancy Pelosi left office, it passed a massive support package in December of another $25 billion. That gave the Biden administration a potentially long funding runway to support Ukraine, as long as it allocated the funding judiciously. Thus, instead of going back to Congress over the last nine months, the Administration has been watching its wallet and carefully managing its spend-rate. While this has ameliorated the need to go to congress, it has also been a major limiting factor on the administration’s ability to provide expensive systems, such as F-16s or ATACMS. White House fury at Germany for forcing their hand to provide Abrams tanks in February was not because of escalation concerns or because it didn’t want Ukraine to have tanks. Rather, in large part the problem was cost. Similarly, the administration wouldn’t provide training to Ukrainians on F-16s if it weren’t willing in principle to transfer the system. You don’t train someone on a highly classified system for the fun of it. US support has thus focused on Ukraine’s immediate basic needs, getting ammo and other key kit to the Ukrainians to fight tonight not on building or supporting a Ukrainian air force for 2025.
The problem now is that it is unclear whether the US will be able to sustain Ukraine in the short term. Because the money has now almost run out. This has finally forced Biden to go back to congress. The White House recently, and quietly submitted a limited $10bn request that would keep the current pace of funding until early next year. The White House has deliberately kept this issue low profile, hoping it can slip through, and not wanting to have a public fight that puts Republicans on the spot. But with the Republican House seemingly intent on shutting down the government and with the 2024 election cycle already beginning, it is by no means certain that Ukraine funding will make it through congress. Ukraine’s fortunes may be determined as much by Kevin McCarthy as by events on the battlefield.
Of course, US diplomats and officials assure Ukraine, as well as allies and partners of its steadfast commitment. And indeed, even if the Republican House refuses to act, the administration can still reallocate funds within the Pentagon’s massive budget and use other budgetary tricks, such as declaring equipment for Ukraine to be excess to requirements and eligible to transfer. But this becomes bureaucratically more difficult internally and will inevitably further slow the pace of US aid. It is therefore imperative that the UK and Europe do even more. The UK has led again and again in providing new advanced systems to Ukraine, such as the Challenger tank and Storm Shadow missiles. The EU for the first time has provided lethal aid and is investing in ramping up ammunition. But the UK and Europe collectively may be forced to reverse roles with the US, with Europe providing the majority of support and the US doing what it can. This will strain UK and European forces and defense industries, will require more funding, and political focus.
But Western support for Ukraine is equivalent to what US lend lease support was for the UK during World War II: a lifeline for a country standing up to tyranny. Allied military aid to Ukraine since the war began has been remarkable in its impact. But it is also an immense bargain for those providing it. This aid has not involved some grand sacrifice by the West and is sustainable indefinitely. But because of America’s divided politics the US may be set to pullback its lifeline to Ukraine and commit a geo-political own goal by not passing more funding. If it does so, the UK, EU, and other European partners will have to fill the void.