Report

Divided Lawmakers Still Unite Around Ukraine

Despite the impeachment inquiry, U.S. lawmakers on both sides insist their support for Ukraine against Russian aggression remains strong.

Rep. Debbie Lesko of Arizona speaks during a press conference alongside House Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 23.
Rep. Debbie Lesko of Arizona speaks during a press conference alongside House Republicans on Capitol Hill in Washington on Oct. 23. Alex Wroblewski/Getty Images

In his opening remarks before congressional investigators on Tuesday, the top U.S. diplomat in Ukraine outlined in the starkest terms yet the impact that U.S. military and political support has on that nation as it faces Russian aggression. “Over 13,000 Ukrainians had been killed in the war, one or two a week. More would undoubtedly die without the U.S. assistance,” William Taylor, the charge d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Kyiv, said in his testimony, which was obtained by the Washington Post.

Most legislators on Capitol Hill, both Republican and Democratic, seem to agree. Despite the impeachment inquiry that has sharpened already deep partisan divides in Washington—culminating in dozens of Republican members of Congress storming a secure room where witness depositions were taking place on Wednesday—lawmakers on both sides of the aisle insist that those political battles will stop at the water’s edge.

“Some concern has been expressed that the current political climate is eroding what has historically been strong bipartisan support for Ukraine. This is not and should not be a partisan issue,” Republican Sen. James Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Foreign Policy. “I will continue to work with my colleagues on both sides of the aisle to support Ukraine where we can.”

Foreign Policy spoke to more than a dozen Democratic and Republican lawmakers and senior congressional aides for this story. Some members and staffers took partisan swipes at their colleagues across the aisle over their handling of the investigation into U.S. President Donald Trump’s alleged attempt to withhold military aid from Ukraine for political reasons. But none suggested the United States should alter course on Ukraine, as it fights Russian-backed separatists and pushes through democratic reforms.

In his testimony, Taylor described traveling to the front line of Ukraine’s war against Russian-backed separatists this past summer for a briefing with a Ukrainian military commander, who profusely thanked Taylor for U.S. security assistance. What the commander didn’t know was that a $391 million aid package already greenlighted by Congress had quietly been put on hold by the White House. Taylor’s testimony offered damning insights that suggest the White House did stall the aid as a quid pro quo to pressure Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. 

But most Republicans in the Senate prefer to separate the two issues. “One thing is clear, the far-left has been desperate to get rid of President Trump since day one. That much has not changed,” said Sen. Todd Young, an Indiana Republican who sits on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “In terms of Ukraine, I do not see support changing. For the past few years, since 2015, Congress has been leading the way on providing assistance to Ukraine—including when the Obama administration was against providing lethal assistance.” 

“Ukraine is an important partner of the United States and the Western world. It’s in our national interest to make sure that Ukraine has the tools and resources it needs to counter Russian aggression,” said Rep. Dina Titus, a Democratic member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Republicans often point to the fact that the Trump administration approved the sale of lethal weapons to Ukraine, which the Obama administration was reluctant to do, as evidence that their party has been even more supportive of Kyiv’s fight against Russian aggression. However, many Republican legislators have been silent or quietly critical of the president’s apparent political quid pro quo in withholding military aid.

While Trump’s own view on Russia—and warm overtures to Russian President Vladimir Putin—has drawn criticism, his administration has largely continued to take a hard-line stance against Moscow and boost support for Kyiv. But testimony by Taylor and other current and former officials reveals how they worked behind the scenes to try to check the president’s worst impulses on Ukraine—and the efforts of Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal lawyer, to forge a back channel to the Ukrainian government. 

During special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Russia became a political lightning rod in Washington, with the president and his allies dismissing the probe as a “witch hunt.” While Ukraine now finds itself an unwitting party to an equally charged investigation, Democratic aides cautioned against comparing the politics around the two probes. In the case of Ukraine, Trump is far more obviously complicit, they say.

“Russia interfered in the 2016 elections. The president solicited Ukrainian interference in the 2020 elections,” said one Democratic aide, who asked to remain anonymous so as to talk freely.

The Kremlin’s interference on behalf of a Republican candidate put the party in an awkward position, as it has long been seen as the more hawkish side of the aisle when it comes to Russia. Congressional Republicans have largely continued in that tradition under Trump, imposing penalties on Russia for its involvement in the wars in Ukraine and Syria and joining with Democrats to propose sanctions on Russia’s Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline project, which critics say could destabilize Ukraine by cutting it out of European gas supply routes. 

Rep. William Keating, the Democratic chair of the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Europe and Eurasia, said the American public shouldn’t lose sight of the scale of the threat Ukraine faces amid the current political furor. 

“It’s very important people view what’s been going on in terms of the impeachment inquiry, that they understand … the pressures that President [Volodymyr] Zelensky was under. He had a country involved in a hot war. He had people, his citizens, being killed every day,” Keating said. 

“Ukraine is the frontline of an attack on … the West. So I think that we will continue support. It won’t be affected by, at least from the congressional side, I’m confident that it won’t be affected by the controversy that the president has created,” Keating said.

Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur, who co-chairs the Congressional Ukraine Caucus, hoped the impeachment inquiry could bring more attention to Ukraine’s push for democratic reforms.

“It actually moves [Ukraine] center stage,” she said. “Maybe it’s actually divine providence that this has all happened, because those who love liberty can more forcefully stand at Ukraine’s side.”

Amy Mackinnon is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @ak_mack

Robbie Gramer is a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @RobbieGramer

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