The American people deserve a debate about Ukrainian military aid

The American people deserve a debate about Ukrainian military aid
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As Congress gears up to investigate President TrumpDonald John TrumpButtigieg surges ahead of Iowa caucuses Biden leads among Latino Democrats in Texas, California Kavanaugh hailed by conservative gathering in first public speech since confirmation MORE’s dealings with the Ukrainian government, there is an opportunity to exercise prudent oversight on U.S. assistance to the eastern European nation and provide public accountability for the military aid at the center of the controversy.

While it certainly won’t be the centerpiece of the upcoming hearings and investigations, the $391 million in U.S. military aid that was recently released to the Ukrainian government is the latest of nearly $1.5 billion of U.S. taxpayer dollars going to Kiev since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Overall U.S. assistance, which nearly doubled between 2013 and 2016, to more than half a billion dollars annually, comes through multiple funding streams within the U.S. government.

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This ranges from developmental aid to anti-tank missiles and Humvees. All funding is aimed at building resilience in the Ukrainian government against external Russian destabilization and internal threats of corruption and anti-democratic activity. 

Most Americans tuning in to the issue for the first time are likely surprised at the significant amounts of assistance their government is providing to Ukraine. They will hopefully raise important questions about what national security interests we have there and how we are measuring the effectiveness of our efforts.

Claims of unanimous support in Congress for the increased assistance to Ukraine are misleading to those who don’t have a granular understanding of the complicated legislative processes in the House and Senate.

Most legislation in the Senate is moved by the unanimous consent process, where a bill is passed out of a committee and brought to the floor to ask for “unanimous consent” for passage or a voice vote — meaning not the standard aye or nay recorded vote we imagine. Instead, the process simply allows any Senator to object to the bill’s passage. If there are no objections, the bill will pass (by either UC or unrecorded voice vote) at the end of the day.

Unanimous consent is sought for multiple bills each day, from simple issues like naming post offices to more complicated issues that members may not want a recorded vote on or take the time to consider.

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In practice, this creates a process where only a handful of committed Senators are needed to pressure the committee chair and the majority leader into allowing a unanimous consent request to be offered, and then together bully any objecting members into relenting. (Senate leaders hate when other members object to unanimous consent requests, as it slows down the Senate process and threatens leadership’s power).

Through this process, and similar ones in the House, programs like foreign assistance to Ukraine are passed with “unanimous support” and reauthorized year after year with little public debate or accountability.

Now that our relationship with Ukraine is back in the spotlight, the congressional foreign relations and defense committees, one wonders if they will be made to reexamine the assistance with critical attention.

The current controversy surrounding President Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky centers on the possible corruption of previous and current Ukrainian officials.

According to the oversight group Transparency International, Ukraine ranks 120 out of 180 countries on their corruption index. Any country riddled with such corruption deserves extra attention before any taxpayer-funded resources are delivered — no matter how noble the intention.

But more important is examining our assumptions about U.S. interests in Ukraine, which cannot be properly calibrated without understanding Russian interests in the region. Even the strongest supporters of continuing aid to Ukraine acknowledge U.S. strategic interests there are limited or at least “indirect.” Russian interests, however, are strong. And they will always be greater due to their shared 1,200-mile border and rich cultural and historical ties.

If the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014 proved anything, it’s that Russia views Ukraine as a critical security interest.

Despite a territorial sovereignty agreement between the United States, Russia, and Ukraine in 1994 and the assuredness of international outrage and sanctions for invading another country, leaders in Moscow went through with their activities in eastern Ukraine because they calculated their security was at stake — in this case the threat of a western-aligned government in Kiev blocking a naval port on the Black Sea (giving access to the Mediterranean) — outweighed other concerns.

The defined U.S. interests on the other hand, as stated in legislation, are limited to vague proclamations about fostering democracy and world order and protecting the territorial integrity of counties on the other side of the world of little to no direct connection to U.S. security or prosperity.

Sure, a predictable world order is certainly idyllic, but a cost-benefit analysis should be factored in. These sets of interests dictate that in a game of chicken over Ukraine, the United States would surely—and wisely—blink first. The Russians are willing to offset and raise any escalation from the United States, creating a daunting scenario between two nuclear powers. And the problem for the United States in continuing to pursue this sort of military assistance is that both sides ultimately understand these factors.

Congress has an opportunity to exercise its authority and make good on public accountability by including stringent oversight of our foreign assistance to Ukraine in the coming months. Will it take it?

Robert Moore is a public policy adviser for Defense Priorities Foundation. He worked on Capitol Hill for nearly a decade, most recently from 2013-2017 as the lead staffer for Senator Mike LeeMichael (Mike) Shumway LeeHillicon Valley: Amazon to challenge Pentagon cloud contract in court | State antitrust investigation into Google expands | Intel agencies no longer collecting location data without warrant Senators introduce bipartisan bill restricting police use of facial recognition tech Fed chief urges Congress to expand US workforce while economy still strong MORE on the Senate Armed Services Committee.