Lawmakers return from Poland with resolve to help Ukraine

Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio) leaves the Capitol following the last votes of the week on July 1
Greg Nash

House lawmakers returning from recent visits to Eastern Europe are warning that the effort to defend Ukraine from Russia will be long, bloody, expensive — and fully necessary to shield a global democratic order from the growing threat of creeping despotism. 

The lawmakers are promising to step up the U.S. involvement in the conflict, on both the humanitarian and military fronts. 

And two months into the war — as Russia’s strategy has shifted from an attempted blitz on Kyiv, which failed spectacularly, to a grinding conflict of urban warfare in the east — they’re bracing for the long haul. 

“We are at the beginning of this war, really,” said Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), a co-chair of the bipartisan Congressional Ukraine Caucus.

Kaptur was among the more than 20 House members who trekked to the Polish-Ukraine border during Congress’s long Easter recess to get a firsthand look at Ukraine. 

The lawmakers will return this week to Washington, where President Biden just announced the delivery of $800 million in military aid to Ukraine, largely in the form of drones, ammunition and heavy arms, as well as an additional $500 million in direct economic assistance. The administration is expected this week to ask Congress for hundreds of millions of dollars more in an emergency supplemental package, which Democratic leaders are vowing to move quickly. 

Asked how much help Congress is willing to provide, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was terse. 

“As much as they need,” he said by phone. “I think the president is in exactly the same position. We need to win this war.”

Hoyer also visited Poland this month as part of a separate bipartisan delegation. 

Echoing the assessment of Kaptur and others, he said the response to the atrocities orchestrated by Russian President Vladimir Putin, whose tactics have featured the lethal targeting of civilians, has united both NATO and Congress in ways that few issues can. 

Hoyer characterized Ukraine’s fight as a proxy battle pitting the liberal values of the West against the totalitarian convictions exemplified by Putin. And he lamented that the U.S. and other Ukrainian allies failed to push back more forcefully in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea. 

“We let Putin believe that he could do what he did with essentially impunity,” Hoyer said. “We cannot send the message to despots throughout the world that this kind of action can stand.”

For all the West’s assistance, the U.S. and its NATO allies have largely refused to enter Ukrainian territory for fear of escalating the conflict against Putin, who controls the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Those red lines have left Congress and the Biden administration in the tortured position of fighting Russian forces without confronting them directly. They’ve done so by providing both humanitarian aid and increasingly large weapons systems, ferried into Ukraine from neighboring NATO allies. 

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.), who recently visited the Ukrainian border and serves as chair of the Appropriations Committee’s subpanel on defense, described the weapons transfers as “very successful.” 

But other lawmakers returning from the border warned that, in many cases, the efforts to deliver humanitarian aid are falling short. 

Kaptur said that in some of the hardest hit cities, like Chernihiv, almost none of the intended food, medical and sanitation supplies are getting through to those who need them. She’s urging a reevaluation of the process, not only for coordinating aid deliveries with Ukrainians on the ground, but also for sourcing those supplies. One proposal she’s floating is to have U.S. National Guard troops gather donated supplies from around the country and fly them to storage warehouses on the Ukrainian border. 

“Yes, they’re at war; we know that. But there are regions where Russia’s withdrawn, and where there’s great need for water, for medical supplies, for clothing, for sanitary things. Right now we’re getting information that in fact many of these communities … aren’t getting anything,” said Kaptur, who also serves as a defense appropriator. “We need a clear understanding of commodities that are needed and not just be given the answer, ‘Well, send us the money and we’ll buy it in Europe and then we’ll deliver it.’ Well guess what? It’s not going in, for the most part.”

Other lawmakers are pressing Biden to get more aggressive when it comes to providing Ukrainian forces with military equipment. 

At the outset of the war, Poland had offered to transfer 28 fighter jets — Russian-made MiG-29s — to Ukraine through a U.S. base in Germany if the United States agreed to replace them with American F-16s. The Pentagon rejected the plan over concerns that it might prove too provocative. But some lawmakers continue to press the administration to allow that transfer. 

“They’ve said that they’re not stopping people from transferring [fighter jets], but the bottom line is: the countries that have those jets are not going to transfer them unless they have some backfill guarantees. That’s where the United States comes in,” said Rep. Jason Crow (D-Colo.), an Army veteran who served in both Iraq and Afghanistan. 

“This helps us modernize our allies, and provide them F-16s, and also help Ukraine at the same time,” he continued. “That’s one area where we can be leaning in a little bit more.”

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky hasn’t been shy in urging additional help. Even as he’s welcomed the flood of resources from the United States and other allies, he’s also raised alarms that they’re doing far too little to prevent Putin’s massacre of civilians. 

Last week, Ukraine’s Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal met with a bipartisan group of House lawmakers, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), to press the case for more help. Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), who attended the meeting, said Shmyhal left little mystery as to what the Ukrainian’s were requesting.  

“Weapon by weapon, dollar by dollar, program by program,” he said, summarizing the message.

“To a person, and in both parties, we want to do everything humanly possible,” echoed Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.), who also huddled with Shmyhal. “We’ve just got to make sure that the support keeps coming.” 

The House this week is poised to provide some additional support by voting on legislation to revive an old program, known as lend-lease, empowering the administration to expedite the transfer of supplies to Ukraine. Created to facilitate the fight against Nazi Germany during World War II, the program eliminates certain procedural hurdles that could bog down those transfers in red tape. The Senate passed the measure unanimously earlier in the month.

“We want to do more,” Pelosi said ahead of the meeting with Shmyhal. 

The lawmakers who visited the Ukrainian border this month reported some good news. The Polish authorities, they said, have done a heroic job absorbing the countless refugees streaming in from Ukraine. Kaptur called it “extraordinary.” 

“It was almost surreal that millions of people and children have been absorbed and there was no evidence that there was any disorder,” she said. 

Still, there was also an overwhelming sense of tragedy and loss — and renewed resolve. 

“Nothing prepares you,” said Rep. Donald Norcross (D-N.J.), “for meeting with the victims of war face to face.”

Tags Betty McCollum Biden Marcy Kaptur Steny Hoyer Vladimir Putin

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