The turmoil in Russia is giving Ukraine’s allies on Capitol Hill new ammunition in the fight to secure more weapons and aid for Kyiv.
It’s still unclear what the brief mercenary rebellion will mean for Russia and Ukraine, but lawmakers argue the schism between Vladimir Putin and Wagner Group chief Yevgeny Prigozhin is a sign Western-supplied weapons are working, and that Washington needs to navigate skepticism in Congress to keep the tap open.
Bipartisan pressure to spend more on the military was already brewing in Congress, and specifically on more aid to Ukraine, even if that means breaking the debt limit deal that capped defense funding at the administration’s request of $886 billion. On Friday, hours before Prigozhin’s forces charged into Russia, the Senate Armed Services Committee released its version of the defense policy bill and called on President Joe Biden to seek more money for Ukraine.
“I would hope what [the Wagner rebellion] does is reinforce to members of Congress, particularly some of my Republican colleagues, who were talking about not continuing funding Ukraine, that this is why it is important to make sure that we are funding Ukraine to push forward,” House Foreign Affairs Committee ranking member Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-N.Y.) said on MSNBC on Monday.
Increasing Ukraine aid is far from a given. Bipartisan support for further arming Kyiv runs deep in Congress, but there’s a vocal swath of conservatives, and some progressives, that oppose more U.S. aid. Many top leaders also concede that new funding will hinge on whether Ukraine’s counteroffensive makes progress in pushing back Russian forces.
The U.S. still has authorization to pull billions of dollars worth of equipment from American stocks and send it to Ukraine. Yet the White House still has to request authority when the current one runs out. It hasn’t done so yet, and congressional leaders are divided over the prospect of approving more. The Pentagon, meanwhile, is taking a wait-and-see approach to whatever the next request might be.
American military aid for Ukraine comes in two forms: direct drawdowns from existing stocks under the Presidential Drawdown Authority, and the longer-term Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, which uses U.S. funds to sign contracts for weapons and equipment in the months and years to come.
If any of that funding is to be increased, it won’t come from the spending blueprint already before Congress.
“There’s no additional money in the base budget,” said one senior Defense Department official, who was granted anonymity to talk about matters still under discussion. “We’ve got either the president’s drawdown authority or [Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative] authority as the two primary means to support Ukraine, but for future budgets, it’s probably too early to tell where things will end up relative to additional … replenishment numbers.”
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, just after securing the debt limit and spending caps deal this month, said he had no plans to take up any supplemental spending beyond the regular fiscal 2024 budget under consideration. Additional spending, therefore, would mean running afoul under the caps of the debt deal, and risks upsetting lawmakers on the Republican right flank who wanted to see deeper spending cuts and oppose new aid for Kyiv.
That puts him at odds with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who on Tuesday reupped his call to rush more weapons to the frontline in the wake of the rebellion. The GOP leader told reporters in Kentucky that “it’s hard to imagine” the uprising “is bad news” for Ukraine.
“If you look around the whole world right now, the single most important mission of the free world should be the defeat of the Russians in Ukraine,” McConnell said.
“I know there are some voices of opposition in the United States, but here’s a way to look at it: the amount of money we’ve spent, sent to Ukraine is about .02 percent of our gross national product, and most of it is spent in this country,” McConnell said. “So we have a country only asking for help that’s doing the fighting.”
Another Republican supporter of Ukraine aid, Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), said on “Meet the Press” on Sunday that it’s been money well spent. The aid, which equates to 5 percent of the U.S. military budget, has helped take out half of Russia’s military, he said.
“Our actions have helped Ukraine prevail to the extent that they are right now. They’re still in a war, Russia controls 10 percent of their country, but without our aid, without our support, I think Ukraine would have fallen by now,” said Bacon, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
“Too many Republicans have tried to stay under the radar on this, and we do best when we stand for what’s right and what’s truthful,” Bacon said.
Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.), a McCarthy ally and member of the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, said the turmoil in Russia is a sign Washington must, “remain fully committed to assisting our friends in Ukraine with the tools they need to defeat the Russian regime.”
“The events that occurred over the weekend in Russia show what many of us already knew: Vladimir Putin is a weak leader who launched an unprovoked war on a sovereign nation,” Fitzpatrick said in a statement. “As the majority of lawmakers agree, a Ukrainian victory is also a victory for American economic and national security, and global stability.”
Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.), on MSNBC, argued that because McCarthy is hemmed in by his right flank, the situation could deny Ukraine what it needs in its counteroffensive.
“That’s why I think unity right now is so important. If we can do all we can right now to help Ukraine make this push, as Russia is on its heels, this could really change the course of the conflict and get Russia finally out of Ukraine,” Swalwell said,
“This is a moment right now that we can increase funding, but if he sees himself as more important than what happens on the battlefield in Ukraine, they’re going to … not be able to meet this opportunity,” Swalwell said of McCarthy.
Despite the bipartisan push, Congress has its share of doubters. In the wake of DOD’s admission last week that it overestimated the value of the weapons it has sent to Ukraine by $6.2 billion over the past two years, one Republican lawmaker involved in budget and appropriations discussions with McCarthy said there’s not yet a solid case for a new tranche of aid.
“First, the implications of developments in Ukraine and Russia are still playing out,” said the lawmaker, who was granted anonymity to discuss closed-door conversations among Republicans. “Second, it’s pretty clear DOD doesn’t have a clue how much money they have or need for Ukraine. They have some work to do there. Last, our position that we would oppose anything that attempts to circumvent the debt ceiling limit of $886 billion stands.”
Congressional Ukraine Caucus Co-Chair Mike Quigley (D-Ill.) was confident Ukraine already had the support in Congress it needs to win more aid and wouldn’t put stock in the events in Russia swaying his colleagues.
“This just keeps it positive, because I still think the majority is with us — majorities in the House and Senate and majorities of Democrats and Republicans,” Quigley said in an interview, adding about recent events: “It just shows [Putin’s] weakness and incompetence in prosecuting this war.”
As the Wagner mutiny unfolded, top House Armed Services Committee Democrat Adam Smith said the impact on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine would be “difficult to predict.” Still, divisions in Russia could offer “a prime opportunity” for Ukraine’s counteroffensive to gain steam, he said.
Three defense industry lobbyists told POLITICO they think the Wagner rebellion will help defense hawks argue for a supplemental spending request for the Pentagon and Ukraine.
But the likelihood of passing a supplemental before late fall is slim because of the limited time on Congress’s calendar over the next two months, said the lobbyists, who were granted anonymity to candidly discuss the state of play.
“It will give a boost to the efforts on a supplemental because of the heightened instability it’s creating. The instability in Russia, however it plays out, makes the world more dangerous across the board,” one of the lobbyists said.
Congress is on recess for July 4 and will also be in August, which does not leave time for a supplemental before the end of the fiscal year. Lawmakers are more focused on passing appropriations bills, the lobbyists said.
Until then, funding for Ukraine is limited within the base budget. Defense policy and spending legislation advanced by the House and Senate Armed Services Committees and the House Appropriations Committee last week green lights $300 million for the Pentagon to arm Ukraine, even with Biden’s budget request.
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