WASHINGTON ― President Joe Biden says he expects U.S. aid for Ukraine’s fight against Russia to continue to flow whatever the still-undecided outcome of the midterm elections, where Democrats performed stronger than expected.
The president at a post-election press conference Wednesday brushed off concerns that Republicans, who are on track to take control of the House, will pull the plug. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., who is in line to become House speaker if Republicans win the majority and has said Republicans will not write a “blank check” for Ukraine.
When asked whether the aid would be uninterrupted given McCarthy’s remarks, Biden said, “That is my expectation. And, by the way, we’ve not given Ukraine a blank check. There’s a lot of things that Ukraine wants [that] we didn’t do.”
Biden also defended the level of aid sent as sufficient for Ukraine to protect itself against Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion without sparking a wider war ― a signal that he’s unlikely to seek to expand that aid.
Biden said he decided to deny U.S. aircraft to guarantee Ukraine’s skies because, “We’re not going to get into a third world war, taking on Russian aircraft and directly engage.” In a reference to Ukraine’s request for the longer-range Army Tactical Missile System, made by Lockheed Martin, Biden said he’s denied the Ukrainians such missiles, “because I’m not looking for them to start bombing Russian territory.”
“We want to make sure that there’s a relationship that they’re able to defend themselves and take on what is purely the ugliest aggression that’s occurred since World War II on a massive scale, on the part of Putin, within Ukraine. And there’s so much at stake,” Biden said, intimating that most Republicans agree with him.
“So, I would be surprised if Leader McCarthy even has a majority of his Republican colleagues who say they’re not going to fund the legitimate defensive needs of Ukraine,” Biden said.
The administration has delivered billions worth of weapons and equipment from military inventories, like Lockheed-made HIMARS rocket launchers, and ― as of this week ― Raytheon Technologies-made NASAMS air defense systems.
McCarthy’s comments, in an interview last month with Punchbowl News, raised fresh questions about the resiliency of America’s support for Ukraine as a growing number of Republicans, particularly those aligned with former President Donald Trump’s “America First” approach, question the need for federal spending abroad at a time of record-high inflation at home.
Sensitive to the political dynamics in Washington and the capitals of other nations supporting Ukraine, Biden has reportedly encouraged Kyiv to express openness to peace talks with Moscow. But when asked whether Russia’s withdrawal from Kherson this week could open the door to such talks, Biden said, “it remains to be seen … whether or not Ukraine is prepared to compromise with Russia.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., vowed last month that Congress would pass additional Ukraine aid as part of the government funding bill in the lame duck session, potentially sparing McCarthy from an unwieldy debate within his caucus for the first several months of his possible speakership.
The top Republican on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Texas Rep. Mike McCaul, said in a statement the day after the election that the U.S. needs to provide Ukraine with additional capabilities, including the missiles that Biden noted he would not send.
“It is far past time for the Biden administration to provide Kyiv with all the weapons it needs, including longer-range ATACMS, to ensure Putin, and all aggressors, understand they cannot win unprovoked wars of aggression,” the statement reads.
Still, at a rally with Trump in Iowa last week, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., vowed that “under Republicans, not another penny will go to Ukraine.” Trump, who is expected to announce his candidacy for a 2024 White House run later this month, himself criticized lawmakers for passing the $40 billion Ukraine aid package in May.
“The Democrats are sending another $40 billion to Ukraine, yet America’s parents are struggling to even feed their children,” his Save America PAC said in a May statement
McCarthy, who himself voted in favor of a $40 billion Ukraine supplemental in May, has started to walk back his October remarks.
“I’m very supportive of Ukraine,” McCarthy told CNN on Sunday. “I think there has to be accountability going forward. … You always need, not a blank check, but make sure the resources are going to where it is needed.”
Even as the situation on the battlefield has turned in Ukraine’s favor, the war has shattered its economy and ability to provide government services. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy appealed to international donors last month for $38 billion to cover next year’s expected budget shortfalls, and an initial $17 billion to start to rebuild critical infrastructure, including schools, housing and energy facilities.
According to Daniel Vajdich, a lobbyist who says he’s been in touch with Ukrainian officials, Kyiv expects a GOP-led Congress to boost security aid, but ― given Republican reluctance about economic aid when the last aid package was drafted ― to shrink that pot of funding.
“The Ukrainians can’t fulfill their energy needs with HIMARS and NASAMS,” said Vajdich, the president of Yorktown Solutions. “They need to sustain their society and overall government operations.”
More broadly, Kyiv recognizes that they will have to engage with Republican skeptics and emphasize their efforts to be good stewards of U.S. aid.
“The nature of the conversation will have to change,” Vajdich said. “They recognize that with a Republican-controlled House they [would] have to do more explaining” of confidence measures.
Speaking with reporters on Election Day, Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Colin Kahl predicted the “considerable bipartisan support,” particularly in the Senate, would endure. Lawmakers, he argued, understand the broader stakes for the globe when “big countries believe that they can swallow up their smaller neighbors.”
“There’s stakes for the United States and for the free world in standing up for Ukraine,” Kahl said. “And I think the fundamental logic of that argument is widely understood among both Republicans and Democrats, so I’m confident we’ll be able to maintain support.”
Putin, Kahl said, is banking that inflation, rising energy prices and war fatigue will fracture political support in the countries backing Ukraine, “and so I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to signal to him, it’s not going to work,” Kahl said.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.