Espreso. Global

Can Ukraine count on assistance before Christmas? Understanding US debate and its consequences

14 December, 2023 Thursday

For nearly two months, the US Congress has struggled to pass a joint aid package for Ukraine and Israel, plagued by disputes between Democrats and Republicans. With Christmas vacation looming, Kyiv may miss out on urgently needed funds. Delving into the stumbling blocks in Washington, Espreso explains whether the $2.2 billion aid allocation to Ukraine will materialize by year-end

The US Congress is on the brink of its Christmas break, and approval for vital military aid to Ukraine in 2024 remains uncertain. Can the Democrats and Republicans find common ground, and what's at stake for Kyiv? Espreso provides insights.

The funding standoff: Why Ukraine faces delayed aid

A week ago, there was widespread anticipation that Washington would finally reach an agreement. However, on the night of December 6, a procedural vote crucial for initiating emergency aid legislation for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan failed among US congressmen. The proposed funding package of $106 billion, with over $61 billion earmarked for Kyiv, is still in limbo. The deadlock stems from disagreements between Democrats and Republicans regarding the protection of the US southern border and the inclusion of funds for a border wall with Mexico in the bills.

Photo: Reuters

Ongoing political negotiations persist. The Republican Party advocates for stricter policies on migrants attempting to enter the US via the Mexican border. To enhance security, Republican lawmakers insist on measures to deter illegal migration and address those in the US who haven't sought asylum, even if it means compromising the USA's humanitarian commitments. Democrats, on the other hand, support a comprehensive review of the migration system, criticizing the Republicans' stance as overly radical.

It's worth noting that due to the impasse in bill negotiations, Democrat Chuck Schumer, the leader of the Senate majority, suggested a procedural vote for an amendment. This would allow congressmen to independently propose changes to the migration issue later, contingent on agreeing to proceed with voting on the overall package. Unfortunately, the necessary 60 votes for this amendment were not secured.

On December 10, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy stated that the White House plans to increase its engagement with US lawmakers. According to Reuters, efforts in Washington aim to secure a bipartisan agreement covering military aid to Ukraine and Israel, alongside enhancing protection along the American border. Despite less than a week remaining before the Christmas break for the US Congress, a bipartisan group of senators has not yet reached a compromise. Murphy deems the Republicans' demands unreasonable, accusing them of jeopardizing global security by linking military aid to US border security measures.

Chris Murphy / photo: gettyimages

Notably, Senator Bernie Sanders, typically aligned with the Democrats, opposed the bill alongside Republicans. His opposition stems from concerns about funding Israel's "current inhumane military strategy" in the Gaza Strip against the Palestinians.

Mexico and the Israel factor

On October 18, it was revealed that President Joe Biden plans to present Congress with a joint military aid package for Ukraine and Israel, totaling $106 billion. This assistance also extends to the Indo-Pacific region, including Taiwan. The objective is to secure broad bipartisan support for Israel in the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas attack and facilitate the provision of military aid to Ukraine.

Towards the end of October, Mike Johnson, the newly elected Speaker of the US House of Representatives, suggested that military aid for Ukraine and Israel should be treated as separate matters, not part of a unified package. Subsequently, on November 2, he declared that Washington would link aid to Kyiv with border protection for Mexico. The House of Representatives then approved $14.3 billion in aid to Israel, omitting any mention of Ukraine. There were reports that Biden would veto this budget bill due to the absence of funds for Ukraine. Finally, on November 7, Democrats in the Senate blocked the document proposed by the Republicans.

Speaker of the US House of Representatives Mike Johnson/ photo: gettyimages

Some Republicans doubted the idea of providing new aid to Ukraine; instead, they favored focusing on humanitarian assistance, as reported by the Wall Street Journal in October.

On November 16, the Senate approved a temporary funding bill, sending it to President Joe Biden for his signature. The bill received support from 87 representatives, with 11 opposing it. Consequently, the US leader signed the document for government funding, excluding additional aid to Ukraine and Israel.

While Republicans show support for aid to Israel, the same sentiment is not extended to Ukraine. However, it's crucial not to accuse American lawmakers or citizens of favoring Tel Aviv over Kyiv. On the contrary, there is a call in a Forbes article to draw analogies in both wars. Following Hamas' attack on Israel, there's a growing recognition that Russia's wars against Ukraine and Hamas' actions against Israel share similarities in the statements of American politicians and the Biden administration. Simultaneously, Ukrainian authorities and experts should acknowledge that the US's aid to Israel has historical roots, with a developed institutional memory supporting assistance to Israel.

For Americans, assisting Ukraine is just one aspect of foreign policy. Republicans aim to ensure effective use of funds and seek clarity on the ultimate goals of aid. GOP members in Congress demand increased accountability, transparency, and specific terms for supporting Kyiv. In simple terms, they want details on the types and quantities of weapons Ukraine needs for counteroffensive operations. While combining funds may boost the draft law's chances, claiming that separate votes jeopardize Ukraine's aid is an exaggeration.

On December 6, the Ukrainian delegation met with House Speaker Republican Mike Johnson to discuss the support package. President Zelenskyy was scheduled to address the Senate, but disputes between Republicans and Democrats over border protection funding led to its cancellation.

During his address on the same day, President Biden stressed the urgency of passing additional funding for Ukraine before Congress adjourns for the holidays in mid-December.

Following the bill's blockage, US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned that America would bear responsibility for Ukraine's setback if Congress fails to approve President Biden's administration's multibillion-dollar funding request. This funding is crucial for Ukraine to receive support from the International Monetary Fund, particularly for its national budget.

Zelenskyy's Washington visit

This week, on December 11, Ukraine's President Volodymyr Zelenskyy kicked off his work trip to the United States. He addressed the US National Defense University, spoke before the Senate, and held meetings with key figures, including House Speaker Republican Mike Johnson and President Joe Biden.

Photo: Reuters

Zelenskyy's main agenda during his visit is to secure support for Ukraine in defense against Russian threats and to strengthen global unity. He emphasized the importance of ongoing defense cooperation between Ukraine and the US, focusing on coordinated efforts in 2024.

Before arriving in the US, Zelenskyy, in an interview with Latin American media, addressed concerns about potentially reduced aid from the US, stating that he was not upset because he didn't lose this battle. He said Ukrainians were not the kind of people who give up in the face of difficulties, and while people start to panic and don't believe in victory, you have to pick yourself up and move on.

Following Zelenskyy's meeting with House Speaker Mike Johnson, it was noted that Johnson maintained his stance. In a conversation with journalists, he affirmed support for Zelenskyy and opposition to Putin's invasion. However, he criticized Biden's administration for lacking a "clear strategy that will allow Ukraine to win."

Zelenskyy's meeting with House Speaker Johnson /Reuters

Johnson stated that they require clear details on US’ actions in Ukraine, oversight of American taxpayer funds, and substantial changes at the border. None of that is available yet.

After Zelenskyy addressed the senators, Democrat Chuck Schumer, the majority leader in the US Senate, expressed concern that a Putin victory in Ukraine would represent a significant geopolitical failure for the US. 

He stated that the US can't let that happen. There's bipartisan agreement that they'll triumph in this conflict, the politician remarked.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate Republican leader, indicated that Congress is likely to delay the consideration of Ukraine funding until next year. Despite McConnell's position, US leader Joe Biden, in a meeting with Volodymyr Zelenskyy, reiterated the importance of Congress approving additional funds for Ukraine before their holiday break to avoid giving Putin a significant Christmas gift.

The head of the United States during a joint press conference stated that the US must refute Putin's claims and must recognize that Russia applauds when Republicans obstruct aid to Ukraine. He urged everyone bothered by Russian propaganda to reconsider their stance and said that history would assess how they safeguarded freedom.

The American counterpart also expressed a desire for Ukraine to triumph in the war and safeguard its sovereignty. He reassured Zelenskyy, urging him not to lose hope. When asked whether Ukraine could prevail against Russia without additional US assistance, Zelenskyy didn't provide a direct answer, merely shrugging his shoulders in response.

Seeking compromise: US elections and Biden's decision on Ukraine's funding

The pre-election season is underway in the USA. As the election draws nearer, Kyiv may encounter increased challenges in maintaining American support. While Joe Biden, the current Democratic frontrunner, has a clear stance on Ukraine, the situation remains uncertain if the leading Republican candidate, Donald Trump, secures the presidency again, as per Voice of America.

Trump asserts that, if elected, he will resolve the conflict between Russia and Ukraine even before his inauguration. However, international observers suggest that his potential Ukraine policy could weaken US support. It's premature to definitively predict the former US president's course of action.

Photo: Reuters

Expert Luke Coffey suggests that Trump's statements are often contradictory. However, Coffey emphasizes that Trump's stance isn't entirely clear, and it's unrealistic to expect him to single-handedly resolve the Ukraine war. Former US ambassador to Ukraine, John Herbst, is quoted in the publication expressing optimism about knowledgeable foreign policy experts advising the ex-president.

Herbst notes that they recognize Putin as a threat and understand the importance of supporting Ukraine. It's anticipated that these individuals may assume key roles in the Trump administration. He adds that if the Ukraine matter isn't a focal point in the US presidential elections, Congress should prioritize voting on a substantial relief package to cover expenses for the upcoming year.

Following Zelenskyy's visit, Bloomberg reported that the Ukrainian leader requested American lawmakers to approve $61 billion in aid. However, he departed Washington without clear commitments for further support from allies. The report mentioned that supporters of the US president expressed optimism for a compromise after the holiday break, allowing aid to be allocated for the next year. However, broad political support in both the US and Europe appears to be waning.

During a joint press conference with the presidents of the United States and Ukraine outside Kyiv on December 13, Biden stated that he would not deny aid to Ukraine, emphasizing its global importance. He highlighted bipartisan support for Kyiv in Congress and expressed readiness to compromise on border financing, citing it as a demonstration of democracy in action.

"I'm prepared for this. It's not right to hold aid to Ukraine hostage," Biden stated, adding that such support would make the American people proud. Without additional allocations, Ukrainians may struggle to address challenges.

Photo: Reuters

If Democrats agree with Republicans on including border protection in the draft law, it could deal a direct blow to the left wing of the Democratic Party and its supporters, as per media reports. This move might lead to a shift of votes from Democrats to Republicans in crucial swing states that determine the presidential election outcome. Considering the current political ratings, indicating near equality (49% versus 51%), such a decision could be seen as political suicide. Signing the border law would significantly diminish the Democratic president's chances of winning the election. Therefore, Joe Biden faces a tough choice: to hold his ground or potentially jeopardize the entire election campaign. It appears that his decision is becoming evident.

Most Americans back giving military aid to Ukraine, with Democrats showing higher support than Republicans. Republican supporters are increasingly questioning the aid's extent, capitalizing on growing dissatisfaction with the Biden administration's domestic and foreign policies. Recent polls, as reported by the BBC, reveal two-thirds of voters believe the U.S. is headed in the wrong direction, 62% see the economic situation as unfavorable, and many disapprove of the response to the Israel-Hamas conflict.

Concerning Ukraine, a majority of Republican voters think Kyiv is already receiving excessive aid. A substantial 84% feel there should be a defined limit on aid, emphasizing it shouldn't be indefinite. This sentiment is shared by a majority of independent voters, crucial in the upcoming 2024 presidential elections. In this context, Republicans are aligning with the views of their voter base.

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