“We must not waver in our support for Ukraine,” the Pentagon chief added.
Despite Austin’s urging, the meeting comes as the future of U.S. aid to Ukraine is unclear. An international aid package totaling more than $100 billion for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan that President Joe Biden sent to Congress months ago remains in limbo. The package includes more than $60 billion for Ukraine.
The opening speech marked Austin’s first public appearance since he was released from the hospital on Jan. 15. Austin was hospitalized on Jan. 1 for complications from a December surgery to treat prostate cancer.
On Tuesday, Austin
read carefully from his prepared remarks, but skipped over the paragraph acknowledging his health.
“As you can tell, I’m joining from home today,”
he was supposed to say. “I’m feeling good and looking forward to being back at the Pentagon very soon. And I’m grateful for all of your warm wishes.”
The Defense secretary has come under fire for not informing President Joe Biden and top White House officials, who didn’t find out until three days after he was admitted and learned of his cancer diagnosis several days later. The Pentagon is taking heat primarily from Republicans who want public hearings. Some have called for his ouster, but Biden has said he supports Austin.
In the meantime, the administration is juggling the war in Ukraine with a rapidly expanding Middle East conflict and is pressing to secure new funding for both.
The Biden administration has warned lawmakers that U.S. assistance is running out. Congressional Republicans have insisted that new aid to Ukraine be attached to tough new border security measures. Though a bipartisan deal
appears close in the Senate, Republican leaders in the House have signaled they won’t accept it, meaning an aid deal could stall in the lower chamber.
Austin didn’t address the supplemental package in his remarks. He instead touted the most recent $250 million U.S. aid package in late December that included artillery rounds and air defense munitions.
He also lauded European allies “who have risen to the moment” and announced security assistance packages recently, including Estonia, Latvia, Germany, Lithuania, the Netherlands, Sweden, Norway and the United Kingdom.
Austin highlighted a half dozen coalitions within the Ukraine Defense Contact Group meant to bolster specific military capabilities. The six splinter groups aim to buttress Kyiv’s air force, ground-based air defenses, artillery, maritime security, demining and information technology efforts.
The U.S. co-leads the artillery capability coalition with France as well as co-leading the air force group with the Netherlands and Denmark. Austin called the push a “reminder of how much we can do when we come together.”
“The security of the entire international community is on the line in Ukraine’s fight,” Austin said. “And I am more determined than ever to work with our allies and partners to support Ukraine and to get the job done.”