Ukraine, the biggest loser of the stopgap deal to avoid a federal shutdown

Lawmakers from both parties claim that they will seek funds to help Kyiv in the coming days, but the far-right Republican faction is increasing its resistance

Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.MICHAEL REYNOLDS (EFE)
Macarena Vidal Liy

The last-minute measures approved in Congress in Washington have avoided a shutdown of the U.S. government. But the law signed by President Joe Biden a few minutes before midnight on Saturday, which allows for temporary funding to keep agencies open, has left a victim along the way: Ukraine.

The temporary funding bill — presented by the House of Representatives, with a Republican majority, and endorsed by the Senate, with a Democratic majority — does not include military aid to help Ukraine fight the Russian invasion. The majority of both parties on Capitol Hill support this aid — indeed, Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is one of its staunchest defenders —, and its backers have promised to present a funding proposal in the coming days. But the long and arduous negotiations with the hard-right faction of the Republican Party have made one thing clear: the resistance of the radical Republicans to continue aid to the Government of Volodymyr Zelenskiy is increasingly firm and extends beyond the ranks of their party, especially in the lower house.

It is a perspective that, looking to the future, is of great concern in the White House and those who support aid to Kyiv. The U.S. presidential elections are approaching in November 2024, which is expected to be a tight contest. What’s more, the majorities in the Senate and the House of Representatives will be at stake. And as the election campaign heats up, Republican lawmakers are likely to become more and more reluctant to approve multimillion-dollar aid packages to a nation that is far from their voters, both physically and mentally.

Biden interrupted his Sunday break to give an unscheduled televised address on the issue. “I want to assure our American allies, the American people and the people in Ukraine that you can count on our support, we will not walk away,” he said. Speaking earlier to reporters at the White House, he insisted: “We cannot under any circumstances allow America’s support for Ukraine to be interrupted. I fully expect the speaker [Republican Kevin McCarthy] to keep his commitment to secure the passage and support needed to help Ukraine as they defend themselves against aggression and brutality.”

Other aid supporters have tried to downplay the decision. The Senate Majority Leader, Democrat Charles Schumer, pointed out that the stopgap measure is only temporary. “We will not stop fighting for more economic and security assistance for Ukraine,” he said after the bill passed.

“Most Senate Republicans remain committed to helping our friends on the front lines, to investing more heavily in American strength that reinforces our allies and deterring our top strategic adversary, China,” added McConnell. “I’m confident the Senate will pass further urgent assistance to Ukraine later this year.”

But for now at least, the Republican hardliners in the Freedom Caucus have got what they wanted. Last week, they stopped spending proposals from including aid to Ukraine: neither the $24 billion initially proposed by the presidential office, nor the $6 billion planned in a Senate initiative to defray short-term U.S. government expenses.

A financial assistance package contained in a specific provision for the State Department did go ahead. But to approve a routine and relatively modest $300 million item of military aid in the House on Wednesday, it had to be separated from a spending bill for the Pentagon. It received the green light, but mainly thanks to Democrat votes. And it pointed to a worrying trend for Kyiv supporters: most Republican lawmakers (117 out of a total of 222) voted against it.

Congressman Matt Gaetz, the de facto leader of the Republican radical wing, even proposed an amendment, which completely banned assistance to Ukraine. It was overwhelmingly defeated, with more than 300 lawmakers voting against it. But 93 lawmakers, all of them Republicans, voted in favor. Just three months ago, a similar measure from Gaetz only had the support of 70 House members.

“Critical need”

John Kirby, the White House National Security Council, told CNN that there was a “critical need” for aid. He pointed out that Ukrainian forces are in the midst of a counteroffensive to recover territory occupied by Russia, and that the arrival of winter will complicate their progress. Kirby warned that if the U.S. withdraws aid, it could trigger a domino effect, prompting other allies to stop supporting Ukraine. That would mean certain defeat for Ukraine, leaving Russia at the gates of Europe and sending a sign of weakness from Western powers to China in the Asia-Pacific.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy had traveled to Washington the previous week, precisely to implore lawmakers not to cut off aid. Without it, he alleged, his country would lose the war. And this defeat, he said, would have serious consequences for the world order that the United States defends. Zelenskiy repeated this message again and again to the 100 senators in Congress — where, with isolated exceptions, support for Kyiv is unanimous — and to the leaders of the House of Representatives, including McCarthy himself.

But the Ukrainian president’s calls fell on deaf ears among the far-right Republicans in the lower house. Former U.S. president Donald Trump — the front-runner to win the 2024 Republican nomination — also continues to demand that aid to Ukraine be cut off. And at last week’s Republican primary debate, two presidential hopefuls — Vivek Ramaswamy, the candidate closest to Trump in his approaches, and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis — said they planned to cut assistance to Ukraine and allocate those funds to other U.S. domestic priorities.

What’s more, Republicans who had previously supported aid to Ukraine voted against further assistance. This was the case of Congressman Mike García, from California, who argued that even though Ukraine is receiving more and more powerful weapons, there is still no end to the conflict in sight.

“It’s not clear to me that the Ukrainians have a clearly defined win strategy to get the Russians out of eastern regions of Ukraine,” he said in a video on Wednesday, saying that he couldn’t support a “blank check commitment” to the country. “It’s not clear to me that our nations, the United States and Ukraine, have alignment on the strategic mission objective of repelling Russia from Crimea or not. And it’s not clear to me the Ukrainians are taking the advice of Ukrainian military advisers on how to win the war.”

On the other side of the ideological fence, Congresswoman Betty McCollum — the Democrat who is chair of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee — has made the opposite call: “Let’s not abandon our fellow democracies. Let’s not abandon the EU and our NATO allies now. Let’s not abandon Ukraine.”

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