Washington infighting puts US support for Ukraine in doubt

Divides on Capitol Hill may well fracture foreign policy consensus as Kyiv awaits further aid

US officials including President Joe Biden have long expressed confidence that Congress would keep supplying Ukraine with billions of dollars of aid to secure Russia’s defeat, even with tensions running high in a divided Washington.

But the deal reached at the weekend to avoid a government shutdown – for now – stripped out any help for Kyiv, revealing just how unpredictable Washington’s backing may be and heralding fraught negotiations ahead to secure further funding.

The White House, most Democrats and many Republicans in both chambers of Congress had pushed hard for fresh Ukraine aid to be included in the stopgap bill to keep the government open for 45 more days, despite resistance from hard-right allies of former president Donald Trump.

Yet in the frenzied final hours of Saturday’s talks to prevent a shutdown, Kevin McCarthy, the Republican House speaker, took Ukraine off the table, bowing to pressure from his most ardent conservative critics. The White House and many of Kyiv’s backers in the US capital had little choice but to accept.


“Our allies and enemies see there is a very real question about America and where they are going to stand on this,” said Doug Heye, the Republican strategist. “The next round of funding will go through, but each time it has gotten harder,” he added.

Max Bergmann, director of the Europe, Russia and Eurasia programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think-tank, said a “larger fracturing of the American foreign policy consensus” was the lesson from the past weekend’s developments.

“The challenge now, and this is especially for Europeans, is that a more politically polarised America has extended to foreign policy,” he added.

On Monday, the White House put a brave face on the deal’s implications for Ukraine. Biden has sought to reassure America’s allies that the US would not “walk away” from Ukraine and said he expected new legislation that would include help for Kyiv to be approved soon.

The next government funding deadline is in mid-November, just ahead of the Apec summit that Biden will be hosting. “If Putin thinks he can outlast us he’s wrong”, said Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary. “There’s been a bipartisan focus and agreement to continue the funding for Ukraine... That’s what we’re going to see,” she added.

Yet the politics on Capitol Hill remain incredibly thorny. Abigail Spanberger, a Democratic House member from Virginia, said she had seen Republican support for Ukraine dwindle steadily in the lower chamber of Congress, even among those who had favoured US backing for Kyiv.

“We’ve seen a departure of support from some of my Republican colleagues who are increasingly unwilling to support American values and the cause of democracy,” she said, describing Saturday as a “success for Russian propagandists”.

“I’m optimistic that we will get the funding to Ukraine, but in terms of how that happens, I’m not sure. There are many different versions to what the ultimate path might be,” Spanberger added.

A US official said there remained enough funding “available to meet Ukraine’s battlefield needs for a bit longer”, adding that the US would announce another round of assistance from American stockpiles soon.

Exactly when the existing funding dries up will depend in part on battlefield conditions, but officials and analysts said Congress would need to act for Washington to be able to maintain its backing for Kyiv.

“We will need a Ukraine funding bill to pass soon and it’s imperative that speaker McCarthy keep his commitment to the people of Ukraine to ensure that happens,” the official said.

A second US official said the US had about $5 billion (€4.8 billion) left to spend on sending weapons from US stockpiles. According to a CSIS analysis, military aid to Ukraine has averaged about $2.7 billion per month. Additionally, the Pentagon has only $1.6 billion left in an account meant to replenish stockpiles, according to a letter the Pentagon’s chief financial officer Michael McCord sent to McCarthy on Friday.

US defence secretary Lloyd Austin and US secretary of state Antony Blinken lobbied lawmakers of both parties over the weekend to stress the importance of additional funding to Ukraine. Officials said they also stressed the message it would send to allies if the US did not meet its promises.

Biden has said that he “fully” expects McCarthy to put forth legislation soon that would include Ukraine funding. But the Republican House speaker is now grappling with a leadership challenge from critics led by Matt Gaetz, the firebrand Florida Republican, who have accused him of striking a secret deal with the US president to back Ukraine, complicating the picture.

In interviews since Saturday, McCarthy has said his priority is to approve more funds to protect the US’s southern border with Mexico. He has made no unconditional pledge to back more Ukraine funding.

“McCarthy doesn’t oppose Ukraine aid, he just wants to get something for it... what he’s trying to do is figure out what the politically safest way is to get it done and if he can combine it with border security that’s the biggest win for him”, said Stephen Myrow, managing partner at Beacon Policy Advisors. “I think something gets done; I think it gets done this month”.

If McCarthy were to be toppled by Gaetz’s initiative, however, it could sow further confusion. “If McCarthy goes down, who’s taking the job? Whoever takes the job can’t work with Democrats and it could be someone who actually opposes Ukraine aid, which is a much bigger problem,” Myrow said.

Congressional aides and observers were conflicted about the impact of Saturday’s events. Many on Capitol Hill believe that if a vote were held solely on Ukraine, funding would be approved with broad bipartisan majorities.

“A lot of the questions coming out of Saturday were: ‘Well, does this mean this is the end for Ukraine?’ And I think that’s the wrong thing to take from this,” said a senior congressional staffer familiar with the weekend’s discussions. Another senior congressional aide said lawmakers were simply dealing with the “task at hand” on Saturday, which was funding the government.

But while Ukraine support remained strong among Republicans, especially in the Senate, the aide warned that Biden needed to do a better job of explaining the “strategy” behind the military help for Kyiv.

A former House GOP leadership aide also warned: “Look, if you like Ukraine money it isn’t looking good. There might be a path forward in the future on some sort of deal but it’ll be a pretty high price tag with House Republicans,” he added, meaning that Democrats might have to offer big concessions.

As for Spanberger, she cautioned that even if McCarthy survived as speaker it would not necessarily ease the way to more funding for Ukraine since his tenure had not been “all that great anyway” for Kyiv. “He hasn’t demonstrated any meaningful support for Ukraine,” she said. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023