Ukraine's grim war realities as struggle for funding persists in Washington
President Joe Biden is actively pressing top lawmakers to approve his $60 billion aid request for Ukraine, as this may be the final opportunity for any new US military funding to the war-torn country before the 2024 presidential election
Lawmakers have directly communicated this to the White House, a US official told CNN. The fact that Pentagon officials haven't met since last month to decide what to send to Ukraine from the department's weapons stocks because there isn't enough money to pay for the aid packages further highlights the current deadlock.
On Wednesday, Biden had a meeting at the White House with members of the House and Senate to discuss the issues facing Ukraine. According to a White House official familiar with the meeting, the President at one point turned to Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan to lay out specific capabilities that Ukraine would run out of in the coming months. They explicitly mentioned artillery ammunition and air defense systems as examples of vital capabilities that could run out without US aid, another official told CNN.
Additionally, Biden voiced a warning that US personnel were in danger, stating that the US would have to intervene actively in the battle if the war between Russia and Ukraine spreads into NATO territory.
However, House Speaker Mike Johnson stated thereafter that continuing to support Ukraine ran the risk of making it into a trap for the US similar to its two-decade war in Afghanistan. Johnson and other House Republicans have linked continued financing for Ukraine to a broader immigration agreement.
“We cannot spend billions of dollars without a clear strategy articulated and I told the president in the meeting today again, as I’ve been saying repeatedly, ‘Sir, you have to articulate what the strategy is. What is the endgame?’” Johnson said Wednesday night in an interview with CNN’s Kaitlan Collins.
During the meeting, Biden told reporters at the White House on Thursday that he thought it went well and that "the vast majority of members of Congress support aid" to Ukraine.
“The question is whether or not a small minority are going to hold it up, which would be a disaster,” Biden said.
Race for financial approval ahead of election
Meanwhile, there is a clear understanding that Donald Trump will probably reduce assistance for Kyiv if he is reelected in November in the White House, NATO headquarters, and in Kyiv.
Democratic Representative Mike Quigley stated “The number one reason Republicans will not come out in favor of a supplemental for Ukraine is they don’t want to offend candidate Trump and his supporters.”
“He’s already made it clear what he would do — the war would be over on his first day, which means Putin gets to keep the borders he has, if not more.”
US and Western intelligence agencies predict that Russia's war in Ukraine will last far longer, regardless of what happens in American politics this year.
According to many sources familiar with the intelligence, assessments range widely, but almost all of them estimate that there will be fighting for at least two more years, which is long enough to outlast Biden's first term. There may be up to five more years of fighting, according to certain US and Western officials who speak privately.
Because of this, lawmakers and administration representatives—including some hawkish Republicans—have been keen to approve and provide the cash to Ukraine before the possible deadline of the end of 2024 approaches.
Sen. Lindsey Graham and Rep. Michael McCaul were among the senators who pushed last autumn for Congress to authorize enough financing to keep Ukrainian military forces in place through the 2024 election, according to a congressional aide involved in the conversations. It may now be little more than a pipe dream to do anything more in a contentious election year, the aide added, after the administration's final request of $60 billion was not met by Congress by the end of last year.
“We are out of money,” said a US military official stationed in Europe. “The administration was able to do some magic [but] we’re getting down to the last of it.”
Said one source familiar with Western intelligence, “Basically everything depends on Biden getting reelected, doesn’t it?”
Static battlefield situation
Even though the front lines have essentially remained unchanged for the past few months as a result of a failed Ukrainian counteroffensive to regain territory that Russia had captured, US and Western officials argue that continued assistance from the West for Ukraine is essential.
However, US intelligence officials do not think that a reduction in US support will significantly affect Ukraine's military capabilities in the near future. Russia is having difficulty reorganizing, giving Ukraine some time, according to people with knowledge of the assessments. However, in the long run, one of the persons added, Moscow could be able to regain momentum using North Korea and Iran as allies and if the US doesn't help with its weaponry
US officials are also concerned about how a withdrawal of US support may affect other allies, especially because it might convey the idea that the US has the political will to stand by its partners and allies in the long run. Another worry is that Europe, which is already running low on ammunition and weaponry, would follow the US's example and start to reduce its aid.
More immediately, suspending US funding to Ukraine may make it more difficult for the country to carry out long-range strikes into Russian-occupied Crimea and the Black Sea. These strikes have been aided by Western weaponry, particularly US-supplied Army Tactical Missile Systems, or ATACMS.
A person familiar with US intelligence assessments told CNN that US authorities believe Ukraine may lose its ability to carry out some of its most prominent operations if that pipeline were to dry up. Russia was compelled to remove a large number of its ships from Sevastopol in occupied Crimea as a result of Ukraine's attacks on its Black Sea fleet last autumn. This was seen to be an especially successful use of the long-range missiles supplied by the West.
Eyes on 2025
According to the US official, Ukraine plans to use this year to strengthen its defense industrial base and rebuild its armed forces in preparation for even greater war in 2025. Russia is probably going to do the same.
According to one source, "that's why continued Western support is so critical, as everything that will determine how 2025 and possibly beyond play out will be done this coming year."
According to the US military official stationed in Europe, another major counteroffensive by Ukraine with the aim of dividing the Russian forces at the southern occupied city of Melitopol is probably still at least two years away, and US and Western officials do not expect either Ukraine or Russia to make big battlefield gains during 2024
Both sides are “too exhausted in terms of troops and equipment to see huge moves in 2024,” this person said. The Ukrainians have discussed 2025 being “a more feasible option in terms of what they can generate to start another offensive,” the military official said.
Nevertheless, Russia has persisted in its attempt to subjugate Ukraine by launching massive missile and drone assaults that are aimed at Kyiv and other important cities throughout the country, weakening Ukrainian air defenses. Additionally, Ukraine is having difficulty recruiting fresh soldiers, particularly after a bloody attempt at counteroffensive that claimed thousands of lives.
At a press conference last month, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stated that his military had suggested enlisting an extra 450,000 to 500,000 troops for the battle, but he had not yet given the go-ahead for the proposal because it would cost Ukraine billions.
“The mobilization of an additional 450,000 to 500,000 people will cost Ukraine 500 billion hryvnia [$13 billion] and I would like to know where the money will come from,” Zelenskyy said. “Considering that it takes six Ukrainian working civilians paying taxes to pay the salary of one soldier, I would need to get 3 million more working people somewhere to be able to pay for the additional troops.”
Trump playing important role
Given the likelihood of a second Trump administration, this is not the position the Biden administration had planned to be in on the war's second anniversary.
According to people involved with the discussions, lawmakers and administration representatives started debating last year how to direct as much funding towards Ukraine as possible before January 2025, CNN reported.
The US official stated, "It is crucial that the funds be appropriated and disbursed prior to the election, as any FY24 funds that are not yet spent could be blocked by Trump."
According to the congressional aide, at one point last autumn, a few more hardline members of Congress secretly calculated that Ukraine might require up to $100 billion to survive until 2024. In the end, the White House decided to request $61 billion for 2024—roughly $7 billion more than it had requested for military assistance to Ukraine in 2023.
According to a congressional aide with knowledge of the talks, the longer the supplemental negotiations take, the less likely it is to be passed.
“We’re in the middle of an intense election cycle, where taking a tough vote like this in the shadow of presidential and down-ballot elections is a nonstarter for a lot of people,” the aide said. “So for the hawks among us, frontloading is the way to sustain support through what is going to be a politically intense year on the home front.”
According to a recent CNN report, senior US officials have been working for the past year to develop a legal case for seizing and transferring to Ukraine the approximately $300 billion in assets held in the West by the Russian Central Bank. In February 2022, following Russia's invasion of Ukraine, those assets were frozen.
In order to implement the unprecedented move, support from US allies in the Group of Seven advanced economies would be needed, as well as a congressional act granting the president the power to seize Russian assets located in the US. It remains to be seen how soon that bill will be put to a vote because Congress is still divided on the supplemental and how to avoid the government shutdown.
According to a Western intelligence source, Ukraine could be able to survive in the short term without US assistance, albeit at a standstill. However, the person added, that would still be a huge setback for both Ukraine and the US's international reputation.
“It shows [Russia] they were able to take territory and shows other nations they can take territory by force,” this person said. “The whole point here is to show that in today’s day and age, major powers cannot just go and take territory by force.”