Biden doubles down on commitment to Ukraine in fight with Putin
President Biden is doubling down on U.S. commitments to Ukraine while digging in for a long-term fight against Russian President Vladimir Putin.
The proof is in the high-stakes visit to Kyiv on Sunday by Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
The risky trip, the details of which were kept closely guarded by the White House until both officials were out of the country, underscored the administration’s dedication to giving Ukraine political and military support as its war with Russia moves into its third month.
“We had an opportunity to demonstrate directly our strong ongoing support for the Ukrainian government and the Ukrainian people,” Blinken said Monday in Poland after returning from Kyiv. “This was, in our judgment, an important moment to be there to have face-to-face conversations in detail.”
Biden is looking to increase military assistance to Ukraine, building on the more than $3.4 billion delivered since Feb. 24, when Russia invaded its neighbor.
Blinken and Austin said the administration has approved a $165 million sale to Ukraine for non-U.S. made ammunition and is preparing more than $322 million in foreign military financing — money that will allow Kyiv to buy weapons directly from manufacturers.
Those commitments would drive U.S. security assistance to Ukraine since the invasion began to more than $3.8 billion.
Biden also is expected to ask Congress to approve another supplemental aid package to Ukraine, building on $13.6 billion in emergency spending for Ukraine included in a more than $1 trillion government spending bill that Biden signed in March.
The president also appointed retired Army Lt. Gen. Terry Wolff as the lead coordinator of security assistance for Ukraine, a role that streamlines communications between U.S. defense firms, the administration and allies and partners to make sure weapons get to the war-torn country.
The president also announced the nomination of a U.S. ambassador to Ukraine — a position that has been empty for three years — and Blinken said embassy staff are preparing to return to Kyiv.
“He understands the big picture right now,” Leon Panetta, who served as secretary of Defense under former President Obama, said of Biden in an interview earlier this month. “The United States and our allies have drawn a line on Russia and we have to make sure that they pay a price. We cannot afford to back off at this point, and he really understands that.”
The U.S. has steadily poured weapons into Ukraine, sending thousands of missiles and bullets, hundreds of drones and armored vehicles and, more recently, numerous helicopters and howitzer artillery systems.
Earlier this month, Biden drew down $1.6 billion in lethal aid in the span of seven days —$800 million for 72 howitzers and more than 121 Phoenix Ghost drones and another $800 million for weapons including 200 M113 armored personnel carriers and 300 Switchblade drones.
The lingering question has been how long the support can last. Concerns range from whether the U.S. will have the funds to ensure that it can resupply its own weapons stocks, whether defense companies can keep up with the demand and how much help other allies can offer.
Moving aid through Congress could also be complicated if Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) ties the latest aid to legislation to provide increased funding to combat the COVID-19 pandemic. Doing so could help in passing the COVID-19 relief bill but also turn into a partisan fight.
Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) told reporters on a briefing call from Pristina, Kosovo, last week that there is robust bipartisan support for giving Ukraine arms but warned against pairing it with COVID-19 relief.
Another possible congressional logjam is how quickly the Senate can move to confirm Biden’s nominee for ambassador to Ukraine, Bridget Brink, who is now ambassador to Slovakia.
The ambassador confirmation process is generally slow and bureaucratic, but Biden’s nominees have faced increased hurdles from Senate Republicans, particularly Sens. Ted Cruz (Texas) and Josh Hawley (Mo.), who have exercised their power to block confirmation votes in opposition to Biden’s policies in general.
At least 41 State Department nominees are under consideration in the Senate, according to data from the Political Appointee Tracker administered by the Partnership for Public Service and The Washington Post.
Another critical aspect of Biden’s strategy against Russia is maintaining unity among allies to isolate Putin. This includes commitments from the United Kingdom, Europe and democratic nations like Japan and Australia to ensure delivery to Ukraine of needed weapons and economic and humanitarian assistance.
To bolster that effort, Austin on Tuesday is set to meet with his counterparts from more than 20 nations at Ramstein Air Base in Germany to discuss defense needs for Ukraine.
Holding allies together on sanctions against Moscow is also key to isolating Russia economically.
“The sustained and coordinated support of the international community, led and facilitated by the United States, is a significant reason why Ukraine is able to stop Russia from taking over their country thus far,” Biden said last week.
That unity was strengthened on Sunday with the reelection of French President Emmanuel Macron, who beat out far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, a Putin sympathizer who has advocated for more independence from the European Union.
“A Macron victory would mean that the three Group of Seven (G7) members of the EU — France, Germany, and Italy — are governed by unabashedly pro-EU leaders,” Matthias Matthijs, senior fellow for Europe at the Council of Foreign Relations, wrote in an article last week.
The U.S. has relied heavily on close unity among the Group of Seven industrialized nations to coordinate sanctions on Russia.
“The strategy that we’ve put in place — massive support for Ukraine, massive pressure against Russia, solidarity with more than 30 countries engaged in these efforts — is having real results,” Blinken told reporters in Poland on Monday.
“The bottom line is this: We don’t know how the rest of this war will unfold, but we do know that a sovereign, independent Ukraine will be around a lot longer than Vladimir Putin is on the scene. And our support for Ukraine going forward will continue. It will continue until we see final success.”
Morgan Chalfant contributed.