Divisions on aid to Ukraine rattle Democrats on eve of midterm legislative elections

A group of progressives withdrew a letter to the White House asking for dialog with Moscow and a negotiated solution to the war as Republicans aim to reduce financial backing for Kyiv

US President Joe Biden during a speech at a Lockheed Martin facility in Troy (Alabama) that manufactures weapons in part destined for Ukraine, on May 3.Anadolu Agency (Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
Macarena Vidal Liy

The war in Ukraine has spilled over into the battle for control of Congress in the legislative midterm elections on November 8. Two weeks before Americans go to the polls with supremacy in the House and Senate on the line – and with it, support for the White House’s policy of military and economic aid for Kyiv – fault lines in political stances on the issue are becoming evident, to the concern of the European allies. The differences are not only those that can be expected between Democrats and Republicans; divisions have also appeared within President Joe Biden’s own party. Meanwhile, the Republicans have issued a warning that there will not be a blank check for Kyiv if they wrest control of Congress in the midterms.

Thirty of the 100 members of the Democratic Congressional Progressive Caucus in the House of Representatives sent a letter to the White House, which was made public on Monday, in which they called for a shift in policy towards Ukraine to encourage a negotiated resolution and direct dialog between Washington and Moscow. The letter was withdrawn just hours later, with the argument that it had been delivered in error, after sparking heated internal debate. “The letter was written several months ago, but unfortunately it was sent by employees without approval,” said caucus chair Pramila Jayapal.

The missive penned by the party’s most left-leaning faction called on Biden to undertake “vigorous diplomatic efforts” for a “negotiated agreement and ceasefire” in Ukraine, arguing that a “swift” end to the war should be the priority for Washington. The letter said that “high food and fuel prices” in the US and increasing poverty and famine worldwide were being caused by the war in Ukraine and urged the administration to seek “incentives to end hostilities, including some form of sanctions relief.”

The document, signed by star members of Congress including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilham Omar, drew immediate criticism from the wider Democratic Party. Arizona legislator Rubén Gallego – who does not feature among the signees – wrote on Twitter: “The way to end a war? Win it quickly. How is it won quickly? By giving Ukraine the weapons to defeat Russia.”

Democrats present united front

Other members of Congress who did sign the letter said they did so some time ago and that now was a “bad moment” for it to be made public: on the eve of elections that the polls predict will return dismal results for the Democrats, and while Ukrainian forces are attempting to consolidate the gains they have made over the past two months in a counter-offensive on the eastern and southern fronts before winter sets in.

In her remarks, Jayapal attempted to underscore the unity among Democrats to avoid sending Vladimir Putin the message that there are divisions Moscow can try to exploit. “We are united as Democrats in our unequivocal commitment to support Ukraine in the fight for its democracy and freedom in the face of the illegal and inadmissible invasion of Russia, and nothing in the content of the letter advocates a change in that support,” she insisted.

However, despite the letter being withdrawn and the timing of its release being criticized, its signatories have not indicated that they disagree with its content. California Representative Ro Khanna stated – after pointing out that he has voted in favor of every proposal for military aid to Ukraine – that “asking for all diplomatic avenues to be explored to avoid nuclear war and seek a ceasefire while defending Ukraine’s sovereignty is what many voters want. Our country should never silence or stifle the debate.”

Since Russia launched its invasion in February, the Democratic government has unequivocally sided with Kyiv: military and economic aid shipments approved by Congress have already reached $66 billion. Biden and his administration repeatedly insist that support for Ukraine will continue “for as long as it takes,” and Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a surprise visit to Kyiv in early September in a display of US support for Ukraine. But as the war has dragged on and expenditure on military aid has risen, doubts among the Democratic caucus have begun to emerge. In September, when the White House asked Congress for an additional $13.7 billion in aid, the Biden administration faced an avalanche of questions from its own legislators before the green light was given.

In part, as Khanna noted, these doubts to some extent reflect those of voters: it is not uncommon in conversations where the war comes up to hear Americans state their support for Ukraine, but also suggest that some of the funds being sent to Kyiv could be put to better use in the battle against inflation, which stood at 8.2% in September, and social aid to US citizens struggling to make ends meet due to rises in gas and food prices.

Among Republicans these doubts are amplified and at least one wing of the conservative grouping – that which is most ideologically in line with former president Donald Trump – has crystallized into pure and simple opposition. In May, Congress approved what to date has been the largest aid package for Kyiv at $40 billion, with 11 senators and 57 representatives on the Republican side voting against. Those that opposed the aid package demanded greater scrutiny as to the final destination of the funds and tracking measures for the weapons being sent to the battlefields in Ukraine. Lawmakers such as Rand Paul, a staunch Trump ally, insist that “you cannot save Ukraine by dooming the US economy.”

Although a majority of Republicans, particularly among the party’s old guard, back continued assistance for Ukraine, it is possible that the midterms will significantly increase the number of Trump-supporting Congressional members and with it resistance to further aid packages for Kyiv, a cause for concern in European capitals. A breakdown of consensus in the US, the country that has provided the largest amount of aid to Kyiv, could have a serious negative impact on the continued financial support of other governments that are more vulnerable to escalating commodity prices and energy shortages.

Last week, Republican House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy vowed that he would not allow the same rate of spending on aid to Kyiv if, as he hopes and the polls suggest, he becomes House speaker and as such number three in the line of presidential succession. “Ukraine is important, but at the same time it can’t be the only thing they do, and it can’t be a blank check,” he said.

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