Commentary on Political Economy

Saturday 6 April 2024

 

Help Ukraine Hold the Line

An illustration of a sunflower being held upright by stakes.
Credit... Illustration by Rebecca Chew/The New York Times
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After more than two years of brutal, unrelenting war, Ukraine is still ready and has the capacity to defend its democracy and territory against Russia. But it cannot do so without American military assistance, which the United States had assured the Ukrainians would be there as long as it was needed.

A majority of Americans understand this, and believe that curbing the revanchist dreams of Russia’s leader, Vladimir Putin, is America’s duty to Ukraine and to American security. A survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs and Ipsos found that 58 percent of Americans favor providing economic help to Ukraine and sending more arms and military equipment to the Ukrainian government. And 60 percent of respondents said that the U.S. security relationship with Ukraine does more to strengthen American national security than to weaken it.

While that support has declined somewhat since the beginning of Russia’s invasion, and it is weaker among Republicans, many Republican members of Congress also support continuing military aid. So it is distressing that the fate of Ukraine has fallen prey to internecine Republican politicking. House Speaker Mike Johnson has the power to do the right thing, but time is running critically short.

Without American artillery, as well as antitank and antiaircraft shells and missiles, Ukraine cannot hold off an army that has a far deeper supply of men and munitions. “Russia is now firing at least five times as many artillery rounds as Ukraine,” as Andrew Kramer of The Times reported. As summer approaches, Russia is expected to prepare a new offensive thrust. Mr. Johnson knows this. He also knows that, if he brings it to a vote, a $60.1 billion aid package for Ukraine would most likely sail through the House with bipartisan support. Many Republican members and most Democrats want to pass it. The Senate passed it in February.

Yet so far, Mr. Johnson has avoided a vote, fearing that a clutch of far-right House members, who parrot the views of Donald Trump and oppose any more aid for Ukraine, could topple him from the speaker’s post. To placate them, the speaker has said he will produce a proposal with “important innovations” when legislators return to work on Tuesday. These may include lifting the Biden administration’s hold on liquefied natural gas exports, including a proposed terminal in his home state, Louisiana; calling the aid a loan; or seizing billions of frozen Russian assets.

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None of those conditions are wise. Tying aid for Ukraine to unrelated political goals, such as undoing President Biden’s climate change agenda, may be typical of congressional horse trading, but it turns Ukraine into a pawn in partisan conflict. “This is not some political skirmish that only matters here in America,” Donald Tusk, the Polish prime minister, said on his visit to Washington last month. The speaker’s decision, he said, “will really cost thousands of lives there — children, women. He must be aware of his personal responsibility.”

Nor does it make sense to force Ukraine to take on massive debt when it’s fighting for its life, and its economy is already dependent on aid. Seizing large sums of money from another sovereign nation could also have unpredictable legal and economic consequences.

Given Ukraine’s perilous position, however, most Democrats and Republicans would likely accept what Mr. Johnson cobbles together, even measures they have reservations about, particularly since the package also includes aid for Israel and Taiwan. Those lawmakers are right to pursue a reasonable compromise. The House minority leader, Hakeem Jeffries, has also suggested that Democrats will support Mr. Johnson as speaker to avoid yet another damaging and pointless fight over the speakership. Those moves are welcome steps to try to loosen the grip of Republican extremists on America’s ability to support its allies.

Of course, recalcitrance in Congress is not Ukraine’s only problem. Europe has been slow to step in to meet Ukraine’s military needs, and the country’s president, Volodymyr Zelensky, may have taken too long to lower the recruitment age to 25 in the face of a shortage of soldiers.

But American weapons and artillery are essential to Ukraine’s ability to hold the line and, eventually, to negotiate for an end to hostilities from a position of strength. No country has the stockpiles or the production capabilities to match the United States in producing and providing the 155-millimeter artillery shells, HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems) or air defense systems that Ukraine requires to hold the Russians at bay. Russia, by contrast, has successfully ramped up military production and is receiving supplies from North Korea and Iran, and Mr. Putin has used the recent terror attack on a concert hall in Moscow to ramp up recruitment.

Ukraine is already suffering the consequences of America’s faltering support. Russian forces took the eastern city of Avdiivka in February, and U.S. intelligence officials warned Congress that this happened because Ukraine ran out of artillery shells. The Russian command is doubtlessly aware of this as it plans its next moves.

Mr. Putin gambled from the outset that the United States would not go the distance in its support for Ukraine, and he must be reveling in the goings-on in Congress.

Allowing Russia to impose its will on Ukraine would be a devastating blow to America’s credibility and leadership — fulfilling one of Mr. Putin’s long-term goals. That, in turn, would risk encouraging him to test waters further afield, whether in the Baltic States, in western Europe or to the south, and would signal to Xi Jinping that China, too, can throw its weight around.

Mr. Trump and his followers may argue that the security of Ukraine, or even of Europe, is not America’s business. But the consequence of allowing a Russian victory in Ukraine is a world in which authoritarian strongmen feel free to crush dissent or seize territory with impunity. That is a threat to the security of America, and the world.

Congress is prepared to stand up to this aggression; it is Mr. Johnson’s duty to bring this effort to a vote.

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