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Congress needs answers before sending more aid to Ukraine

Congress needs answers before sending more aid to Ukraine

The Biden administration needs to tell the American people what it really thinks Kyiv can actually achieve

Analysis | Washington Politics

Many are seeing the current impasse over the future of U.S. aid to Ukraine as the ultimate manifestation of congressional dysfunction. Following several attempts, the Senate in February passed a $95 billion bill that includes most of the Biden administration’s previous requests, minus border funding. That bill sits in limbo in the House, with Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.), who, while signaling he wants a vote on it, has so far been unwilling to bring it to the floor.

Last month House Democrats introduced an arcane “motion to discharge” petition, which could allow supporters to bring the bill to a vote if 218 members agree. While 191 have signed the petition, the odds of finding another 27 appear daunting, given the number of progressive Democrats who oppose military assistance for Israel, and opposition by Republicans to bypassing the Speaker.

This situation — while distressing to the Ukrainians, and it seems, the foreign policy establishment — presents an opportunity to reestablish some measure of congressional control, if only in a limited area. Members of Congress wary of presidential overreach and endless military intervention can use this delay to push the administration to define its strategy for Ukraine more transparently. Such a definition is essential for Congress, and the voters they represent, to evaluate the total costs, in treasure and risk of escalation, of our current policy.

A common task for government bureaucrats is drafting responses to congressional questions for the record sent to their agencies. These QFRs range from in-the-weeds clarifications of budgets to essentially rhetorical questions on why a particular senior administration official is clueless, and everything in between. The best QFRs can cause policymakers to question some of their assumptions. Since the Ukraine war began, the administration's statements have been opaque, often contradictory, and sometimes lacking in elementary logic. We are past the point where the American people deserve straight answers on where this war is going, what our real critical interests are, and how we can best achieve them.

Before approving further military assistance for Ukraine, lawmakers should ask, preferably in hearings with administration officials, or at least in detailed letters, a number of overarching questions.

The first should be: Can you define what constitutes victory in this war? Does it require Ukraine recapturing all its internationally recognized territory, as President Zelensky and others maintain? Or can victory be defined more simply as preventing the collapse of the current government? What do we mean by providing Ukraine aid "as long as it takes"? The Biden administration should provide actual analysis, based on U.S. national interests, and not simply Ukrainian government talking points.

Second, if our definition of victory is the expulsion of all Russian forces from Ukrainian territory, how plausible is that from a military perspective? Can the Biden administration provide a historical example in which a numerically smaller force, without air superiority, successfully attacked a larger force entrenched in strong defensive positions hundreds of miles long, dislodged that force, and inflicted more casualties on the defender than it suffered itself while on the offensive?

Next, there has been much speculation about the risks of nuclear escalation, and whether Russian statements are merely aggressive bluffing, with no likelihood such weapons would be used. During the Cold War, wasn't it U.S. doctrine to implicitly threaten to use tactical nuclear weapons, not just to deter the Soviet Union from attacking the US homeland or using nuclear weapons in Europe, but to deter a conventional attack by the Warsaw Pact? If those threats were credible, why would Putin not consider using tactical nuclear weapons if he were facing a conventional defeat in which Ukraine threatened to retake Crimea and the Donbas, areas Russia now considers part of its territory?

Fourth, a major talking point has been that a Russian defeat would deter China from attacking Taiwan, and represent a victory for the democratic world over an authoritarian axis. If this is a rationale to keep the war going, wouldn't China take us at our word, and decide that a Russian defeat is an unacceptable red line? Why wouldn't China begin providing munitions, artillery, tanks, and aircraft to Russia to prevent such an outcome?

Fifth, in addition to Ukraine's shortage of ammunition and weapons, we increasingly hear about a manpower shortage, and an inability to replace casualties. Despite the battlefield situation, hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian men remain outside the country or are in Ukraine but making extraordinary efforts to avoid being drafted. Is this due to dissatisfaction with the current government, or a sense that while it was important to save the country in 2022, it's not worth continued fighting to retake Crimea and Donbas, or something else? Regardless of its cause, why should the American taxpayer be more committed to a Ukrainian victory than hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens themselves are?

And finally, following Ukraine's unsuccessful counteroffensive last year, Russia is now undertaking limited attacks in several areas, using its superiority in artillery and airpower to wear down Ukrainian defenses. The Biden administration often states that its objective is to give Ukraine as strong a position on the battlefield as possible going into any negotiations. Is it possible that Ukraine is now in the best position militarily that it can reasonably hope for? Is it time for us to urge Ukraine to begin negotiations now, based on realities on the ground, rather than strive for maximum objectives, before it loses any more territory, and its bargaining position is further weakened?

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Questions such as these would help start the dialogue on how our policy should evolve. The result may be a security assistance package much smaller than what the administration is proposing. There may be consensus to include, for example, artillery ammunition and shorter range air defense missiles to defend Ukraine's current positions, while excluding longer range munitions and aircraft. Those systems, by allowing strikes inside Russia, might encourage Ukraine to pursue unrealistic victory conditions, reducing the chances for diplomacy.

For this approach to succeed, two elements are essential. First, members of Congress must make clear their sympathy for the Ukrainian people and their suffering. The point is not whether Ukraine is justified in seeking the return of its territory — it certainly is. The question is whether this goal is in any way realistic. Since the answer is likely “no,” to continue throwing away lives as a performative gesture is immoral as well as pointless. Congress might consider a bill that separates out humanitarian assistance and voting for that now, since those funds are needed regardless of military policy.

Second, this approach must be a bipartisan effort, with lawmakers on the left and right working together toward a common goal. So far certain Republicans have been in the lead on this issue, with Democrats lagging behind. More than a year has elapsed since the fiasco in late 2022, when the Congressional Progressive Caucus was forced to retract its already anodyne call for diplomacy. Progressives must overcome their fear of White House displeasure and attack from the Washington foreign policy establishment. People will take notice when similar questions are raised by members of both the Freedom Caucus and “the Squad.” Members of Congress who favor endless military intervention have no problem with bipartisan cooperation, and those who think differently need to catch up.

With the current effort in the House to act on the Senate’s bill, the window is closing to ask tough questions. If Congress is to have any meaningful voice, these issues must be addressed as soon as possible.

President Joe Biden is seen with Speaker of the House Mike Johnson as he departs from the Friends of Ireland ceremony on the House steps of the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C., on March 15, 2024. (Photo by Aaron Schwartz/NurPhoto)

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