The Ukraine Aid Debate: Politics in War

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The Speaker of the House Mike Johnson responds to criticism after the passage of a long-delayed $61 billion aid package for Ukraine, which he forced through the House of Representatives despite Republican opposition. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

February 24, 2022. 5:07 a.m., missiles and artillery strike near Kyiv, airports crumble from blasts, smoke decorates the sky, and people scramble in fear. Russia launched a full-scale land and air invasion of Ukraine, the largest attack on any European country since World War II. Since then, U.S. and European support has played a pivotal role in helping Ukraine fend off one of the world’s most powerful militaries. But the politics of war are never clean or easy, and Congress has been a battleground in itself on the topic of Ukraine. 

As Ukraine’s largest aid donor, the Kiel Institute for the World Economy reports that the U.S. alone has contributed approximately $75 billion in military, financial, and humanitarian assistance to Ukraine through multiple major spending packages, which mainly goes toward weapons, equipment, training, intelligence, loans, and budget support. Most notably, $44 billion in military assistance has been provided, the largest portion of supplementary funding, according to the U.S. Department of State. Many of the weapons, munition, and equipment are sent through the emergency Presidential Drawdown Authority (PDA), which gives the president the authority to draw from U.S. Department of Defense stockpiles and send them to Ukraine, ensuring the speedy delivery of military assistance in response to emergencies. The second major source of military funding is the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI), which was put in place after the annexation of Crimea in 2015. The USAI gives the secretary of defense the authority to send security assistance to Ukraine through private contracting with arms and munition manufacturing firms. The weapons that are provided are also highly sophisticated and advanced assets, including F-16 Fighting Falcons, Abrams battle tanks, Javelin anti-armor systems, Patriot interceptors, Howitzer systems, unmanned aircrafts, coastal defense ships, and radar systems, among a long list that even includes the controversial and widely banned cluster munitions. For an army that is largely outgunned and outnumbered by Russian forces, and a country that has had its industrial secretary destroyed, U.S. security assistance has been a critical lifeline keeping the Ukrainian resistance’s military capabilities afloat. Of course, foreign policy interests do not always align with domestic interests, especially when it comes to spending billions of taxpayer dollars. 

U.S. security assistance has  America’s involvement in the Russo-Ukrainian War has been a source of significant foreign and domestic controversy, from sanctions on Russia to aid for Ukraine, and public support has consequently dwindled and fractured. Americans are divided on whether too much aid, too little, or just enough aid is being sent, with a growing partisan dichotomy over the issue. Republicans tend to oppose providing more Ukraine aid, with 48% claiming that the US is sending too much aid, compared to just 16% of Democrats, who tend to support aid packages, according to a Pew Research poll. In the U.S. House of Representatives, a powerful bloc of extreme right-wing Republicans backed by former President Donald Trump, known as the Freedom Caucus, have worked to prevent aid packages from ever reaching the floor for debate by pressuring the Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, who controls the legislative agenda. The opposition’s justifications include concerns that the U.S. can not aid Ukraine and deter China, that Ukraine’s defeat is inevitable, that the rising national debt can not afford more aid, and many more politically motivated reasons, such as demands for the Democrats to comply with the Republicans’ southern border migration policies before allowing an aid package to pass. Yet bipartisan legislation has never made it out of the Senate due to Trump and Johnson’s disapproval. From East Asian geopolitics to Latin American immigration, the debate over military aid to Ukraine, questions of global commitments and domestic resources being stretched too thin, in combination with political ploys from party factions in a deeply polarized Congress, have left Ukraine struggling to stand its ground. 

The political gridlock between the two parties in Congress has seen that U.S. aid to Ukraine essentially come to a stop until recently, on April 24, where after highly contentious negotiations in the House, President Joe Biden signed a long-delayed aid package that delivered $61 billion to Ukraine. Johnson risked being removed from his position as Speaker of the House by right-wing hardliners from his own majority party who strongly disapproved of the aid package, which also included $34 billion to Israel, Gaza, and Indo-Pacific allies. However, Johnson eventually gave his support to the bill after months of party infighting and unprecedented political evolution on his part. Citing the threat of Russia, China, and Iran as grave threats to the free world, he argued that a lack of U.S. support would have devastating consequences for Ukraine, Europe, and global security as a whole. Thus, with a vote of 311-112, the Ukraine aid was passed in the House with broad support, and though 112 Republicans voted in opposition, all Democrats voted in support. Johnson’s position is now increasingly vulnerable, having severed ties with far-right Republicans, who were quick to attack and threaten to oust him. Nevertheless, after passage in the Senate, President Joe Biden signed the bill into law immediately. Now, as Russia continues to put pressure on the front line of the war, the first few installments of the aid are arriving to an army desperate for replacement stocks of ammunition and weapons. However, delivery of all military aid could take months, and Ukraine is running out of power, will, and time, with severe shortages of arms, supplies, and munition. 

Equipment like artillery shells, ammunition, and air defense systems are especially in high demand for the daily range of battles. The effort to send these priority weapons is advancing at a quicker pace, as they are easier to conceal and ship, especially if Western allies already have reserves in Europe. However, larger, sophisticated weaponry like tanks, boats, and missile launchers might not arrive until late summer, and the logistical difficulties of training personnel to use the weapons and maintaining NATO units pose even more hurdles. With a long and bloody future likely ahead, Ukraine is clutching onto the resistance, and Russia is pressing its advantages before Western reinforcements arrive. 

With the summer being a potential turning point in the war, and an urgent need for weapons in the face of renewed threats, western leaders have agreed that now is as important as ever for countries to take a stand in the face of thousands of Ukrainian lives.

Written by Emilie Fann

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