Will a Split Congress Threaten US Aid to Ukraine?

By Sasha Stone, James Lamond, Mackenzie Eaglen, and Chris Miller, Associate Professor of International History at The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

The new Republican-led House of Representatives takes control this month, with the Democrats maintaining their hold on the Senate, albeit with slim majorities for each party. 

For months, Ukrainians and other Europeans have been monitoring US political developments with some concern.  

To date, there has been strong, broad, and bipartisan support for Ukraine. The US has been the largest contributor of security assistance to Ukraine, particularly since Russia’s full-scale invasion on February 24. The US sent more than $48bn in military, financial, and humanitarian support to Ukraine since last January, with a further $44bn promised. This support has been crucial in providing Ukrainians with the tools it needs to fight and drive out Russian forces. 

However, recent statements and actions in the lead-up to the US midterm elections, and in the weeks following, have indicated potential cracks in the Ukraine consensus. In October, then-House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy warned that Republicans will not write a “blank check” for Ukraine if they won a House majority. On December 21, following President Zelenskyy’s speech to Congress — and the narrow Republican win in the House midterm elections — McCarthy repeated the statement.  

His words reflect those of America First conservatives, who are increasingly questioning the large amounts of US aid being delivered to Ukraine. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a leader of the Republican far right, criticized Zelenskyy’s visit and is pushing a resolution to increase oversight of US military and economic aid. During the dizzying election for Speaker of the House, which remains deadlocked on January 5, Republican Rep. Chip Roy called for a debate on whether the US should continue to support Ukraine. On the other side of the political aisle, the left-wing Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC) released a letter last fall calling on President Biden to engage in direct talks with Russia and explore a new security arrangement acceptable to “all parties.” The letter was rescinded a few days later.  

We asked three experts on US-Russia policy to share their thoughts on how the new Congress may impact the Ukraine consensus: James Lamond, a Senior Fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis, Mackenzie Eaglen, a Senior Fellow with the American Enterprise Institute, and Chris Miller, an Associate Professor of International History at Tufts University. All three expressed optimism that US support for Ukraine will hold, but each identified areas of concern that should be monitored in the coming months.  

Don’t Anticipate Any Shifts in Ukraine Policy . . . For Now

James Lamond 

One of the few areas where there has been real bipartisan agreement over the last 10 months has been on support for Ukraine. The quick rebukes to both McCarthy’s “blank check” comment and the CPC’s letter calling for diplomatic negotiations with Moscow make clear that there is little appetite for major shifts from the Biden administration’s Ukraine policy, for the moment at least. This aligns with public opinion: most recent surveys indicate around three in four Americans agree that the US should continue its support. But politics can change and that impacts policy. There are three important political developments to keep an eye on over the next two years, which could affect America’s Ukraine policy:   

The 2024 GOP primaries.

There is a growing divide between the party’s pro-Trump, America First wing, and the more establishment members on Ukraine. Ahead of the elections, JD Vance, the new, Trump-backed Senator from Ohio, said, “I don’t really care what happens to Ukraine,” and Georgia Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene stated, “Under Republicans, not another penny will go to Ukraine . . . Our country comes first.” Among conservative voters, those opposed to US aid doubled from 13% to 27% between May and November. Presidential primaries shape foreign policy much more than midterm elections: if the nominee is from the America First wing of the party, we are likely to see a more unified stance similar to Vance and Greene. The nominee, whoever that may be, will set the agenda for the rest of the party. 

The slim majority in the House.

The Republican party’s razor-thin majority — less than 10 seats — means that even a small handful of members will be able to play spoiler even on party-line votes — as has been on display during the voting for Speaker of the House. The proposed change to the House rules to include a motion to “vote to vacate the chair” — essentially allowing votes of no confidence for the Speaker — will raise the possible consequences of Republican party divides since a Speaker could be removed at any time should they lose the support among even a tiny fraction of their own caucus.   

The direction of the House investigations.

Republicans from the House Oversight Committee and House Judiciary Committee have already announced that they will be conducting investigations into the president’s son, Hunter Biden, including claims about relationships with Chinese, Russian, and Ukrainian officials. While these claims are not directly about America’s policy towards Ukraine, these types of investigations are used as political theater and can go in wild, often unpredictable directions, as we saw with the Benghazi hearings from 2014-2016.  Should Ukraine become a focus of the investigations, it could have unintended consequences for the politics of Ukraine policy.  

Expect More Stringent Oversight Next Year 

Mackenzie Eaglen  

US military and financial support for Ukraine will remain bipartisan and bicameral in the next Congress, led by the US Senate for the foreseeable future. Both Democratic and Republican members understand that US support is crucial in helping Ukraine secure victory, and preventing this real-time crisis from metastasizing in the region. 

However, more could and should be done to maintain this bipartisan support over the next several years. First, the executive branch should cooperate more closely with Congress and communicate the administration’s priorities to the American people to ensure timely funds for the appropriate priorities. Since the war began, the White House has held just three Congressional briefings on the war in Ukraine. This lack of executive urgency seeps over to Capitol Hill and gives cover to members of both parties to focus on other issues.  

To make matters worse, the American economy is showing signs of stress: deficits are rising and debt is hitting new records. Despite clarifying that his “blank check” comments were calling for greater oversight rather than abandoning aid to Ukraine, House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, who may be the new Speaker of the House, will be under pressure to exercise far more stringent oversight of aid dollars and narrow any new investments to military-specific outcomes. Ensuring these accountability mechanisms do not stem the flow of aid to Ukraine will present an additional challenge for the Biden administration.  

Ukraine’s Military Successes Will Keep US Aid Flowing

Chris Miller

Despite concerns that the midterm elections would usher in a significant shift in US policy toward Ukraine, this appears unlikely.  

Republicans and Democrats hold slim majorities in the House and Senate, respectively, and it is unlikely that either party will pursue a dramatically different approach to Ukraine from the last 10 months.  

However, there is some concern about the oversight of financial aid, and a group of Republicans have introduced a resolution demanding that the government be held accountable for “all of the funding for Ukraine.” Nonetheless, support for military aid appears strong and bipartisan.    

Ukraine’s military successes are likely to encourage US policymakers to continue providing funding. Ukraine’s successful recapture of Kherson, for example, will encourage those in Washington who believe that additional military aid will enable Ukraine to retake additional territory.  

Russia was clearly hoping that the midterm elections might force the Biden administration to curtail support for Ukraine in the new Congress, but the results suggest this is unlikely. 

This piece is republished from the Center for European Policy Analysis.

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