Analysis | Ukraine will get its U.S. funding. But can that turn the tide?

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The Senate is expected to pass legislation Tuesday granting Ukraine a new lifeline. Half a year of political squabbling and deadlock ended this weekend after a bipartisan vote in the House allowed for the passage of a bill greenlighting some $61 billion in military aid. House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) opted to antagonize the Trumpist wing of his caucus by pushing through the funding requests, which are expected to be signed off on by President Biden.

That was no easy feat for Johnson, a relatively inexperienced figure catapulted to prominence amid the dysfunction and internecine battles of his own party. After months of stalling on Ukraine’s desperate aid requests, he appeared to be compelled by high-level intelligence briefings about the state of Kyiv’s plight and the entreaties of a handful of more establishment-leaning, senior Republican lawmakers as well as some leading Democrats.

“Look, history judges us for what we do,” Johnson said at a news conference last week in response to a question from my colleagues about his decision to invite the ire of the Republican far right. “This is a critical time right now, critical time on the world stage. I could make a selfish decision and do something that’s different, but I’m doing here what I believe to be the right thing.”

Far-right Republican lawmakers have openly mulled launching a bid to oust Johnson from his role as speaker. In Europe, though, the movement on Ukraine was cheered by Kyiv’s boosters. “Better late than too late,” Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk posted on social media. “And I hope it is not too late for Ukraine.”

The House passed a $95 billion package to aid Ukraine and Israel on April 20. The Senate is expected to consider the measures early this week. (Video: Reuters)

Ukraine’s struggles after more than two years resisting Russia’s invasion have been well documented. The country’s weary armed forces are short on personnel and even shorter on ammunition, and officials in Washington and Kyiv warn that Ukrainian troops may soon be outgunned by the Russian invaders by roughly 10-to-1 in artillery rounds. Russian long-range missiles and drones land indiscriminately on Ukrainian cities, many of which lack sufficient defenses to ward off such attacks. And far from retaking lost territory, Ukrainian forces are locked in a desperate battle to hold their ground, with Russia concentrating its latest offensive on the eastern town of Chasiv Yar in the partially occupied Donetsk region.

In an interview with NBC, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky indicated that his country had lost precious time while waiting for Congress to come to its rescue. “We’ve had the process stalled for half a year and we had losses in several directions, in the east. It was very difficult, and we did lose the initiative there,” Zelensky said. “Now we have all the chance to stabilize the situation and to take the initiative, and that’s why we need to actually have the weapon systems.”

That’s an assessment shared by some U.S. lawmakers. “Ukraine has lost because we were not quick to respond,” Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) told me. “The delay has been very costly, lives have been lost, and it has cost the U.S. credibility on the world stage.”

Ernst was part of a six-member bipartisan delegation that journeyed to Ukraine this month under the auspices of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. Their visit saw them tour not just Kyiv, but also the strategic port city of Odessa, the town of Bucha — site of a grisly massacre carried out by Russian forces in the early stages of the war — and the northern city of Chernihiv, where they went to neighborhoods that were later hit in a deadly Russian strike last week.

They came away from the trip struck by the resolve of ordinary Ukrainians to resist Russian forces as well as the implicit, sweeping threat posed to the rest of Europe should Russia be allowed to consolidate its territorial gains in Ukraine. Ernst warned of Russia swallowing up Ukraine’s gas fields and untapped mineral wealth. Rep. Tom Suozzi (D-N.Y.), another member of the delegation, noted that a collapse in Ukraine’s lines would give Russia “a clear path” into the heartlands of Europe.

“Ukrainian people are incredibly motivated to never come under the thumb of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin,” said Suozzi, while also looking askance at far-right, Kyiv-skeptic colleagues in the House like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.), whom he accused of “parroting the propaganda” of the Kremlin.

Republican opponents of further funding to Ukraine argue, among other things, that it’s an unwinnable conflict and a dangerous drain of finite U.S. materiel and treasure. Suozzi likened these arguments to those put forward by Charles Lindbergh and other American isolationists at the outset of World War II. “We do have deficits, but that doesn’t mean we can shirk our responsibility,” he said, before summoning the contrasting legacies of Britain’s two most famous leaders of that era. “This is a Churchill-or-Chamberlain moment.”

“Many of my colleagues have been frustrated that they have not been able to get a plan of victory,” Rep. Chuck Edwards (R-N.C.) told me, referring to conversations between Republican colleagues and visiting Ukrainian officials in Washington.

“Ukraine is having a hard time right now to get a plan of victory when they have bombs falling on their heads,” Edwards, another member of the delegation, said. “Their goal right now is to stop the Russians from bombing them into obliteration.”

“Two years into the full-fledged phase of this war and soon it’s going to be 10 years after Putin attacked us for the first time, never Ukraine asked our friends and allies to send soldiers to fight for us. We still can do it ourselves …. All we are asking is to send us the tools …. In order to prevent American soldiers, European soldiers from fighting Putin, which will happen unfortunately if God forbid Ukraine falls, we have to support Ukraine and stop it while it’s still in Ukraine.” – Oksana Markarova (Video: Washington Post Live)

To be sure, there are loftier goals than that. Zelensky has signaled that unlocked U.S. funds and aid will help bolster Ukrainian defenses and prepare Kyiv for another counteroffensive, after last year’s efforts stalled in the marshlands of the country’s southeast.

In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Michael O’Hanlon of the Brookings Institution conjured a scenario where a reinvigorated Ukrainian military could puncture the Russian lines at one crucial spot and then work to cut off and encircle Russian forces west of that breakthrough corridor.

“With another $60 billion in U.S. aid, a boost in recruiting and an impressive military push through a small section of the front line, Ukraine might have a chance, late this year or early next, to liberate half or more of its occupied territory,” he wrote. “The odds are tough, but not hopeless.”

Away from the front lines, the odds are no less tough for Ukraine. The toll of the war is steep. “Ukraine faces recurring battles to win financial help,” my colleagues reported, citing potential U.S. and European efforts to redirect frozen Russian assets toward Kyiv. “The current bill for damages and reconstruction is $486 billion and rising, according to a joint estimate by the government, the World Bank and the European Commission. And its battered economy remains dependent on international support.”

Given the Ukrainian expectation for long-term support, the disputes over funding Kyiv in Western capitals are far from over.

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