Ukraine’s message to GOP: We need more than weapons

Last updated on October 31, 2022

Ukrainian officials are warning Republicans who may soon take control in Congress: Defeating Russia means providing not just weapons, but more money for Ukraine’s economy as well.

Ukrainian leaders believe that, despite dissident notes from some on the far right, a fully or partially GOP-led Congress won’t skimp on giving Kyiv military aid. In fact, Ukraine expects “even more robust” weapons packages if Republicans are in charge, said Daniel Vajdich, a lobbyist for the Ukrainian government.

The Ukrainians are more concerned about Republicans paring back future economic aid to their country. The United States already has given billions of dollars in such assistance to Kyiv — but more funds will be crucial in the coming months and years, especially if Russia continues to damage Ukraine’s power plants and other critical infrastructure.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and his aides know “there may be some different challenges than existed before” in a post-midterm world, Vajdich said. “There’s a recognition in Kyiv that they’re going to have to work with Republicans to help them understand that support for Ukraine can’t just be about guns.” That means money to erase Ukraine’s budget deficit, and to underwrite the energy sector and other civil services such as schools.

It’s a message lawmakers are hearing directly from Ukrainian officials and through their representatives in Washington.

Vajdich’s comments offer a glimpse of the Ukrainian leadership’s political strategizing as Republicans and Democrats trade barbs ahead of the Nov. 8 midterms. It suggests the government in Kyiv expects aid discussions with Washington will become more complex as the Washington-Kyiv partnership deepens, forcing American politicians to convince voters of the continued need to support Ukraine since Russia’s February invasion.

Through broad bipartisan support in Congress, Ukrainian government has obtained major packages of weapons, including the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System. Led by Zelenskyy, the Ukrainians have often turned to U.S. lawmakers to press the Biden administration on specific weapons systems, in particular long-range missiles (though the White House has so far refused to supply those missiles and some of the other weapons Ukraine wants).

Funding for Ukraine drew new attention after House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, the potential next House speaker, recently said there would be no “blank check” for Kyiv if the GOP wins. The comments were an apparent nod to a vocal but small number of populist Republican House members who want to curtail or end support to Ukraine, and instead focus on domestic problems. But McCarthy has since tried to calm the fervor he’s inspired.

A senior administration official said the Biden team wasn’t worried about support for Ukraine dropping should Republicans take either or both chambers of Congress.

Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader, has consistently said the GOP would authorize more weapons for Ukraine. The administration also expects a majority of Republican House members to force McCarthy to stay the course, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss internal administration thinking.

Even the embarrassing blow-up over a letter from members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus on Ukraine shows that any perceived lack of support for Kyiv is political kryptonite. The letter was released, then quickly retracted, in recent days as some interpreted it as major break from the Biden administration’s approach.

Lawmakers involved with the letter said it had been drafted months ago, had become outdated and should not have been released. Republicans seized the opportunity to say they are the party that most backs Ukraine.

In effect, it might be a little harder to negotiate for more weapons and financial support for Ukraine in a Republican-led Congress, but not so hard that it won’t happen, the administration official argued.

That view is shared by some Republicans.

“If Kevin becomes the speaker of the House, he’s going to eventually have to govern,” said Sen. Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.). “And I’m pretty confident when he governs, he’ll govern properly.”

“I understand their anxiety,” the Senate Armed Services Committee member added of Ukrainian officials, “but I think we can we can all calm down and not miscalculate.”

Rep. Don Bacon (R-Neb.), a House Armed Services Committee member, said “Ukraine and the administration will need to explain and justify what is being requested, but I believe the far majority of our conference will do what is necessary to ensure Ukraine prevails.”

Democrats remain skeptical.

Ukrainian officials should “definitely worry more” with Republicans leading in the House, said Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz.), who also serves on HASC. McCarthy “has no control over his caucus and given the option of saving Ukraine or himself, he will choose himself.”

Vajdich said Ukraine’s concerns about economic aid is a long-term one. The country expects the U.S. will send economic assistance to keep the government running, and the aid will come during the lame-duck session as Ukraine heads into a brutal winter.

But to keep its society functioning — whether it’s by ensuring schools stay open or rebuilding its power grid — Kyiv may need help for years.

When asked if his party would support long-term economic assistance for Ukraine, Bacon said the “short answer is yes, though details are important.”

“I do believe members on both sides of aisle will want to know that other NATO nations and free schools countries are also sharing the burden,” Bacon said. “Defending Ukraine should be a team effort with our allies.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on Friday said he expects a “robust” military and economic package as part of a year-end government-funding bill.

“To my Republican colleagues who don’t want a blank check: That’s fine, I’ll be glad to sit down with you to make sure the money goes where it should go. But I promise you [that] the majority of Republican senators [is] fully committed to seeing this through,” he said during a Yale University event that Zelenskyy attended virtually.

Washington has given Kyiv a range of aid, from anti-tank missile systems to help for displaced Ukrainians. The U.S. pledges so far include nearly $25 billion in financial and humanitarian aid, along with $27.5 billion in military assistance, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy.

But Zelenskyy has at times pushed for help that Biden is unwilling to give. The Ukrainian leader has often responded by going public with his frustrations, drawing vocal support from members of Congress from both parties.

It’s a tactic that has caused some friction between the Ukrainians and the Biden administration, according to former U.S. officials. It’s one that the Ukrainians could, in theory, turn to even more if Republicans control all or part of Congress and want to beat up on Biden, a Democrat. But it doesn’t always work.

Ukraine, for instance, continues to ask for the Army Tactical Missile System, a long-range missile system Kyiv says can help it recapture the annexed peninsula of Crimea. It has received some GOP support for this request, including from the top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, which could mean increased pressure on Biden to consider sending ATACMS or other weapons to Ukraine if Republicans take over.

Biden administration officials are so far unwilling to provide the system, mainly out of fear Ukraine will hit targets deep inside Russia that will prompt Vladimir Putin to escalate the war. Ukraine can already “service just about every target that they want to” with the weapons they have, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told reporters Thursday.

Early in the conflict, Zelenskyy urged the United States to establish a no-fly zone over Ukraine, but, for logistical and other reasons, Biden declined. More recently, Zelenskyy has called on Biden to formally declare Russia a state sponsor of terrorism, a request that has broad bipartisan support in Congress. But, for various purposes, the Biden team has rebuffed that demand.

Biden administration officials aren’t always thrilled with the Zelenskyy approach, said Daniel Fried, a former U.S. ambassador to Poland. “You sometimes get the sense that they feel jammed and they don’t like it,” he said.

Despite that, Fried and other former officials said, Biden and his aides ultimately understand that Zelenskyy is pursuing what he believes is in his country’s interest.

Vajdich, the lobbyist, said Ukraine is pleased with the level of weapons support — though there could always be more. “The overall level of security and defensive assistance is something that they’re quite happy with it,” he said of the Ukrainians.