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Ukraine faces American-made crisis two years into war

The spigot of American assistance to Ukraine has run dry two years after Russian President Vladimir Putin launched a full-scale invasion across the border, a stark turn after a strong bipartisan response early in the war.

Though the United States poured lethal assistance into the country in the weeks and months after the Kremlin’s attack, late December marked the last time Washington provided Kyiv with any significant military aid. And it’s been more than a year since new aid was last passed.

A $60.1 billion supplemental for Ukraine is currently languishing in Congress as Kyiv’s forces struggle with dwindling supplies – a holdup that is allowing Russia to regain momentum as the conflict hits its second anniversary Saturday.

“There’s no question that you can look at battlefield successes corresponds to the type of weapons and the volume of weapons which have been provided by the West,” said Wayne Jordash, a human rights lawyer based in the Ukrainian capital.

The battlefield impact of Congress’ failure to pass more assistance was made uncomfortably clear this week with the loss of eastern city Avdiivka, which Russian troops captured after Kyiv’s forces had to retreat — a major symbolic loss for Ukraine.

“They don’t have enough ammunition and artillery, and that’s partly because we’re not able to supply it,” Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said on Thursday. “We’re not able to be able to give it to them because, frankly, of congressional inaction.”

At issue is the Senate’s $95 billion bipartisan foreign aid package — which includes assistance for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan — passed in the chamber on Feb. 13 by an overwhelming 70-30 vote. The legislation has stalled in the House over conservatives’ demands that any aid for Ukraine be paired with border security policy. Congress is now in recess, guaranteeing the issue won’t be taken up again until mid-March.

If approved, the dollars would bring total American investment in the Ukraine-Russia war to $170 billion and greatly bolster a flagging Ukraine, which has gone without a solid shipment of U.S. weapons and equipment since the end of 2023.

Luke Coffey, senior fellow at Hudson Institute and a former adviser at the United Kingdom Ministry of Defense, said the gap in aid is “really concerning.”

Back in the fall, the U.S. still had dollars and weapons remaining in the pipeline, mitigating the impact of congressional gridlock. But fast forward to February, and the Pentagon has run out of money to replenish its own stocks, and the ramification of U.S. inaction is starting to show on the battlefield, he said.

“You’d have to be naive and extreme to think that we could go a whole year of providing munitions and weapons, then all of a sudden stop, and there’s not going to be an impact,” Coffey told The Hill. “It’s now been more than 450 days since Congress last passed any aid for Ukraine.”

Previous contracts with industry mean some weapons can still trickle into Ukraine, but any major U.S. commitment is on hold.

That’s bad news for Ukraine, which has slogged through the war and made only incremental gains since November 2022, when a winter stalemate emerged. A Ukrainian counteroffensive in June largely failed to break through Russian lines, though Kyiv’s military has scored wins against Russia’s fleet in the Black Sea.

Though the U.S. steadily stepped up support for Ukraine through more advanced American-made weapons – including Patriot missiles that arrived in Ukraine in April, HIMARS rockets systems delivered in June, controversial U.S.-supplied cluster munitions transferred in July, and Abrams tanks that reached Kyiv in September – those systems require artillery, ammunition and spare parts to keep things running.

And that’s why a new U.S. assistance package is so vital to Ukraine’s fight, said Jordash, a managing partner of the Global Rights Compliance law firm.

“Now what we have is a situation where I think Ukraine will be not able to actually defend itself. I think we’re beginning to see that with the incremental gains which Russia is now beginning to make on the front line. That is obviously deeply concerning,” he said.

With each passing week and month, more lives are being lost, whether because air defense systems are failing to protect civilians, or because Ukrainian soldiers don’t have the firepower to fight back.

“That is the reality, that many more Ukrainians are dying because of the lack of movement on the military package in Congress,” Jordash said.

While partisan rancor and roadblocks are the norm in D.C., aiding an embattled Ukraine was — initially — a rare area of bipartisan consensus.

In the immediate days after the Russian military poured over the Ukrainian border in a massive Feb. 24, 2022 attack, Washington and its allies scrambled to send Kyiv millions of dollars’ worth of weapons and equipment: shoulder-held Stinger and Javelin missiles, bullets, rifles, helmets and medical supplies.

It was the type of equipment meant for what many expected to be a quick war. But as Ukraine remarkably held on to the capital, even pushing Moscow’s forces from the north, the conflict shifted to a grinding war that required larger, more advanced weapons for Ukraine to defend itself.  By April 2022, a new phase of the battle had emerged, with Russia placing its forces in southern and eastern Ukraine, with a major focus on the country’s industrial heartland of Donbas.

By then, the U.S. and its Western allies were rushing longer-range weapons to Ukraine, including the first American howitzer, anti-ship missiles, tanks, armed drones and systems to shoot down aircraft — arms meant to kneecap the Russian offensive and stop a wider assault.

Throughout 2022, the Democrat-led Congress approved $113 billion worth of aid and military assistance for the Ukrainian government and allied nations, in a series of emergency funding packages.

The support paid off, with a Ukraine counter-offensive in May able to drive back Russian forces near Kharkiv. Further Ukrainian counteroffensives in the south and the northeast allowed forces to recapture the majority of Kharkiv Oblast in September and the city of Kherson in November, with Russian forces withdrawing to the east bank of the Dnieper River.

When HIMARS rockets systems were provided to Ukraine in June “you could suddenly see that the Russian logistics were being hit effectively, and they had to move their logistics back and that made frontline attacks much more difficult and that gave Ukraine breathing space,” Jordash said.

But since Republicans took control of the House in January 2023, Congress has not approved any major aid for Ukraine. And Ukraine’s breathing space has given way to Russia retaking initiative in the war.

“It’s no longer a stalemate. The Russians have regained momentum,” former Defense Secretary Gates told The Washington Post this week. “Everything I’m reading is that the Russians are on the offensive along the 600-mile front.”

The cracks in US support have been growing steadily over the past year. In September, 93 Republicans voted for an amendment to a defense spending bill that would have barred all future assistance to Ukraine, compared to 126 GOP members who voted against it. That was up from 70 who voted for a similar amendment in July.

It’s now anyone’s guess when, or if, House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) will allow the languishing Senate-passed legislation to get a vote on the floor. And that’s seriously threatening Biden’s promise that the U.S. will stand by Ukraine until the end.

“I do think the Biden administration underestimated the longevity of the bipartisan consensus that existed last year,” said Charles Kupchan, who served on the National Security Council staff during the Obama and Clinton administrations and is now with the Council on Foreign Relations.

“They underestimated the power of an America-first narrative at a time when things like the southern border and the difficulty making ends meet in an era of inflation, these are issues that weigh heavily on the minds of voters.”

Coffey said the worst-case scenario for continued stalled aid is “Russia starts breaking through in some areas of the front lines, because the Ukrainians lack the ammunition and the equipment that is needed.”

But Jordash had a more dire outlook.

“I’d be very surprised if we don’t get mass missile attacks as Russia tries to exhaust the remaining weapons system for the air defense systems. I would fully expect more flattening of towns and no incremental gains,” he said.

“Ukraine is in for some very difficult months.”

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