Ukraine aid is drying up. And the White House is under pressure to send more.
The funding, many members say, needs to continue to flow without interruption, especially as Kyiv prepares to launch what’s expected to be a sweeping counteroffensive and retake ground in the east from the Russians.
“It is critical that the administration provide Ukraine with what it needs in time to defend and take back its sovereign territory,” Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) told Pentagon leaders during a hearing on Thursday. “We expect the administration not to wait until the eleventh hour if the Ukrainians need more before the end of the fiscal year.”
The White House is discussing a new package, and it will be timed to keep support for Ukraine flowing, said a senior administration official who was granted anonymity to speak ahead of an official announcement.
The official added that it’s unclear how Ukraine’s needs might change during or after the counteroffensive, but that the administration is “fully committed” to supporting Kyiv during and after the fight “for the long haul.”
But this isn’t the same Congress that approved the last big batch of money, nor is it the same set of circumstances.
This time around, any late-summer proposal by the White House could run up against the raging debate over the debt ceiling, and will almost certainly face opposition from a small but vocal group of Republicans that wants to slash spending on Ukraine.
Keeping the money flowing
The original $48 billion package approved in December included about $36 billion for the Pentagon to craft a wide range of military aid to Kyiv. The U.S. sent millions of artillery shells, funded tanks, and shipped armored vehicles and advanced air defense systems into the Ukrainian military’s hands. The aid allowed them to beat back Russian attacks while preparing for the coming offensive meant to break the grinding stalemate across hundreds of miles of front lines.
Outside the hearing on Thursday, Collins said she is concerned about giving Ukraine what it needs for the coming counteroffensive and the pace of U.S. aid deliveries.
“It’s clear that it will” happen, Collins said. “I expect there will need to be a supplemental at some point. It’s also clear that it’s taken far too long to get munitions and tanks delivered to the Ukrainians.”
Frustration is also becoming evident on the Ukrainian side about the pace of those shipments.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said new armored vehicles promised by the U.S. are only “arriving in batches,” contradicting European Command’s Gen. Christopher Cavoli, who told Congress last month that Ukraine had received “over 98 percent” of the combat vehicles it had requested.
“I am very confident that we have delivered the matériel that they need, and we’ll continue a pipeline to sustain their operations as well,” Cavoli told the House Armed Services Committee.
When Collins on Thursday pressed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin about why Abrams tanks pledged by Washington weren’t arriving sooner, he noted that some had already arrived in Germany for Ukrainians to train on. Kyiv’s troops would be ready when the rest “certainly” arrive in early autumn, he added.
Figuring out the X-date
Collins and a host of other lawmakers POLITICO interviewed were unclear about when exactly the Ukraine military aid would run out, and how large the next package might be.
The massive U.S. supplemental has been used to steadily supply Ukraine with everything from Patriot air defense systems to spare parts for Humvees. The Biden administration has settled into a mostly regular pace of doling out several hundred million dollars every week to 10 days.
This month, the U.S. announced a $1.2 billion package of drones, artillery, air defense systems, and software and technical help to network Ukraine’s air defenses. All of those items will be placed on contract with U.S. defense companies, and are meant to help support Ukraine in the long term. That package leaves $4 billion in the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, further draining the money available.
One congressional aide who closely tracks the issue estimated that, based on the rate of announcements, the money to draw down existing U.S. stockpiles will expire in July. That would mean the flow of equipment could be disrupted if Kyiv has to wait an extended period for a new tranche of funding.
The Pentagon is assessing how to spend the remaining money and continues to look at options “as the situation evolves to support battlefield successes during new offensives in the spring,” spokesperson Lt. Col. Garron Garn said in a statement.
Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he’d been told recently during a briefing with administration officials they would have sufficient funds for Ukraine for the next several months, therefore that the appropriations process — or an emergency supplemental funding bill around then — would likely be the next time Congress doled out more funds.
“We’re OK for the next several months,” he said in an interview.
“If I had to guess, probably September,” House Foreign Affairs Chair Michael McCaul (R-Texas) said. “The counteroffensive that’s gonna be waged in the next several days will have a major impact.”
Back to the budget
Timing for the next round is a major issue, especially as lawmakers continue to grapple with a host of other issues.
Congress will spend the next several months debating the fiscal 2024 defense budget, a wrinkle that could complicate Ukraine funding, even as lawmakers from both parties say they fully support keeping the aid spigot turned on.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), a senior appropriator, indicated the appropriations process would likely be the next time Congress would provide funding unless the situation changed substantially on the ground.
“I think you’ll see it in appropriations,” Murkowski said in an interview. “It’s not making the front page or the second page. It kind of continues to be out there — we know it’s there — but not at a level that is going to get people really focused.”
Alluding to those in her party skeptical of providing additional resources to Ukraine, Murkowski said that “it’s hard to say that the way that people are talking now is going to be the way that they will talk [in the future]. I just think there are so many uncertainties.”
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of the biggest backers of Ukraine in Congress, agreed lawmakers would eventually have to pony up more funding and predicted the annual government funding process would likely be the next best shot.
“Although there are dissenting voices, the large majority of certainly Republicans — for sure in the Senate and arguably in the House as well — believe strongly that we need Ukraine to win and that the outcome there is something that matters not only to that region, but to the United States and our national security interests,” he said.
Mark Cancian, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said he expects several smaller Ukraine packages to be proposed by the White House to get through the rest of the year.
The first would likely be enough to last through the current fiscal year that ends Sept. 30, followed by another package that would bridge the lag in getting the defense funding bill passed, which in recent years has been pushed to the end of the year or early the following year.
Once the budget passes, another funding package could be nestled within that annual bill since “at that point, they’re going to want to buy some time to see where the war is going and how the counteroffensive is going,” Cancian said By then, Ukraine will be planning its war strategy for 2024.
But more money isn’t guaranteed, especially in this environment in Washington.
Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), vice chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said it would be a “mistake” for the Biden administration to bank on an additional Ukrainian supplemental funding measure.
“It looks like they’re expecting some sort of a supplemental at some point — they’re going to come back and ask for more money,” Rubio said. “I think that’s a mistake. I think it should be in their baseline” budget.