Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. left, and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., right, walk with President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the U.S. Capitol Building on Sept. 21, 2023 in Washington, D.C. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON — U.S. senators from both parties and administration officials sounded the alarm Wednesday on the path forward for Ukraine amid dwindling U.S. humanitarian, economic development and security assistance and as Congress risks a government shutdown in less than 10 days.
During a hearing before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Department of State and U.S. Agency for International Development officials stressed serious ramifications if Congress withholds the Biden administration’s roughly $61 billion request to bolster Ukraine’s continued war against Russian aggression.
“If we turn our backs here, we are turning our backs on those who would confront us around the globe,” testified James O’Brien, assistant secretary for European and Eurasian affairs at the State Department.
The hearing occurred as U.S. Senate and House Republicans continue to fracture on supplying additional assistance to Ukraine now that attention has turned to defending Israel after the brutal Oct. 7 attack by Hamas militants that killed 1,400, including 33 Americans.
Ukraine has been battling Russia since a full-scale invasion in February 2022. Russian forces under President Vladimir Putin previously occupied and forcefully annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014.
“The support of the Congress and the American people through this supplement provides us with the means to ensure that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is not able to metastasize into a threat against the United States and our NATO allies, and delivers a clear message to our friends and foes about U.S. leadership, power, and resolve when it comes to the fight for freedom,” O’Brien testified.
House bill on Israel aid
U.S. House Republicans on Nov. 2 pushed through a $14.3 billion Israel-only support package, dropping President Joe Biden’s request last month to tie Israel funding to dollars for Ukraine, the Asia-Pacific region and the U.S. Southern border.
New House Speaker Mike Johnson of Louisiana required the Israel funding be paid for by cuts to the Internal Revenue Service.
Sen. Ben Cardin, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in his opening statement at the Wednesday hearing that the “investment in Ukraine goes far beyond its borders.”
“By degrading Russia’s military capabilities, we are also degrading the capabilities of those who Russia works with, like Iran, Hamas, and Hezbollah,” said Cardin, a Maryland Democrat. “We see these actors in concert, not in isolation, which is why we need to consider the whole supplemental package.”
An Israel-only aid package is largely considered a no-go in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim majority, and where Republican leadership remains committed to Ukraine’s cause.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky accompanied Oksana Markarova, Ukraine’s ambassador to the U.S., to a speaking event at the University of Louisville on Nov. 7 and told the audience that “Russian aggression and Iran-backed terrorism are clear examples of the evil in the world that seeks to do us harm.”
“Over the past twenty months, the ambassador and I have worked closely together. And for even longer, I’ve been proud to stand with her country. Not out of altruism, but because it’s clear to me that the threats facing America’s friends today are facing us, too. And because the freedoms we hold dearly must be constantly defended,” McConnell said.
Ukraine aid skepticism
Republican Marco Rubio of Florida told witnesses at the Wednesday hearing that his “personal belief” is that tension in the Asia-Pacific region, Iranian aggression and Putin’s invasion of Russia will “determine really what much of the rest of the century is going to look like.” But, he said he “constantly” hears questions and skepticism about continuing to help Ukraine.
“People come up to me and say the following: We have five, 6,000 people a day crossing our border, we’ve got all these other needs, we’re running up this enormous debt, now obviously we gotta help Israel, we still have to build up our military because the real risk is China, why is Ukraine important in that context?”
O’Brien responded that Putin is trying to “fray” the coalition of democratic countries and that Ukraine funding will continue to “shore up the base” by stimulating Western defense and export economies, and advancing energy innovation as Europe seeks to decrease its dependence on Russia.
“Those are all reasons you don’t walk away when you’re partway through the job,” he said.
Fellow witness Erin McKee, USAID’s assistant administrator to Europe and Eurasia, told Rubio that her dad asked her the same question.
“Number one, we’re not alone, we’re in this together. And number two, if we falter in our support, Russia will win. And it won’t stop at Ukraine,” McKee said. “We have been able to support (Ukraine) through economic assistance, humanitarian assistance, and security assistance without having our own soldiers on the ground, and we want to do everything we can to prevent that from happening.”
House Speaker Johnson is expected to release a temporary government funding bill within days, but funding for Ukraine remains unclear.
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