Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Congress to Ukraine: We’ve Still Got Your Back

Lawmakers flock to security conference to allay doubts over long-term Ukraine commitment.

By , a diplomacy and national security reporter at Foreign Policy.
A man with a Ukrainian flag stands on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House in Washington.
A man with a Ukrainian flag stands on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House in Washington.
A man with a Ukrainian flag stands on Pennsylvania Avenue in front of the White House in Washington on Feb. 25. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA—Weeks after the U.S. midterm elections, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers jetted to an international security conference in Canada to deliver a message to the United States’ allies: Don’t believe the wingnuts; we’re all in on Ukraine.

Concerns abound in Kyiv, and other parts of Europe, about continued U.S. military support for Ukraine in the wake of the narrow Republican midterm victory in the lower chamber of Congress. A handful of Republicans have questioned support for Ukraine and sought to halt U.S. arms, aid, and assistance. But other lawmakers are pushing back against that narrative, insisting it doesn’t represent the views of the vast majority of Congress.

“This is probably one of the most bipartisan issues that I’ve seen since I’ve been in Congress,” said Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when asked about continued U.S. support for Ukraine in its war against Russia. “We are bound to do this on a bipartisan basis. We’re arm in arm on this.”

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA—Weeks after the U.S. midterm elections, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers jetted to an international security conference in Canada to deliver a message to the United States’ allies: Don’t believe the wingnuts; we’re all in on Ukraine.

Concerns abound in Kyiv, and other parts of Europe, about continued U.S. military support for Ukraine in the wake of the narrow Republican midterm victory in the lower chamber of Congress. A handful of Republicans have questioned support for Ukraine and sought to halt U.S. arms, aid, and assistance. But other lawmakers are pushing back against that narrative, insisting it doesn’t represent the views of the vast majority of Congress.

“This is probably one of the most bipartisan issues that I’ve seen since I’ve been in Congress,” said Sen. Jim Risch, the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, when asked about continued U.S. support for Ukraine in its war against Russia. “We are bound to do this on a bipartisan basis. We’re arm in arm on this.”

Risch and eight other U.S. lawmakers from both parties delivered the message to foreign dignitaries from Ukraine, Canada, and other NATO countries at the Halifax International Security Forum, an annual gathering of national security leaders and experts. The message seemed to allay any lingering doubts among Ukrainians and other NATO allies—at least in the short term, according to interviews with five European and Ukrainian officials, some of whom spoke on condition of anonymity.

But it did little to assuage their uncertainty and fears about what U.S. politics may look like after the 2024 presidential election cycle, particularly if the war drags on for years and the cost of support piles up.

“The lawmakers brought the message that we, that Ukraine needs to hear, which is they’re all committed here and now,” said one senior European official, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But we’re all still in this post-Trump hangover, even two years later, with wondering what comes after 2024 and whether a new MAGA coalition could override bipartisan Ukraine support,” the official said, referring to the “Make America Great Again” slogan that former President Donald Trump used.

U.S. President Joe Biden this month asked Congress for $37 billion in emergency funding to Ukraine, including military and humanitarian aid, a massive cash infusion that came after Ukrainian forces carried out a series of stinging victories against Russia’s military and retook the key port city of Kherson.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, speaking at the conference in Halifax, characterized U.S. support for Ukraine as vital for both trans-Atlantic security and the health of the U.S. economy, with Europe standing as one of the United States’ largest and most important trading partners. “Those of us in North America don’t have the option of sitting this one out,” he said. “The U.S. trading relationship with the European Union is the largest in the world. So when an aggressor manufactures a huge security crisis in Europe, it hits home for everyday Americans and Canadians.”

It’s unclear how much that argument will continue resonating with the American public as the price tag keeps going up. A series of new polls stand as an early warning sign that elected officials in the United States could face pressure from voters in the future as they continue pouring tens of billions of dollars into funding the war in Ukraine, particularly at a time when Western countries are grappling with inflation and bracing for a major global economic downturn.

A Wall Street Journal poll released earlier this month found that 48 percent of Republican voters believe that the United States is doing too much to support Ukraine, up from 6 percent in March. A separate poll conducted by the Halifax International Security Forum and Ipsos polling group found that 88 percent of Americans believe the country should focus less on the world and instead turn inward during difficult economic times.

Kurt Volker, the former special envoy for Ukraine under the Trump administration, said Washington could face more political pressure to eventually pump the brakes on Ukraine aid if voters believe that Europe isn’t carrying its fair share of the burden.

“If Europe doesn’t get its act together and start helping Ukraine more itself, that will become a political liability in the United States,” he told Foreign Policy. He also expected a new debate over U.S. support to Ukraine to flare up in the 2024 presidential election cycle.

One top Democratic lawmaker said he understood why U.S. allies shared fears of “Ukraine fatigue” settling into Washington. “I’ve watched Ethiopia fatigue set in in the West; I’ve watched Somalia fatigue set in in the West; I’ve watched Afghanistan fatigue set in in the West,” said Democratic Sen. Chris Coons, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “Based on history, that is an understandable concern.”

“But part of why the largest delegation from Congress ever to this conference is here is to meet with Ukrainians, to listen to them, and to offer our strong support. We have the House and Senate, Republicans and Democrats. There’s not an inch of difference between us,” he said.

That message of reassurance came after a spate of minor inside-the-Beltway scandals that dented allies’ confidence in whether U.S. support for Ukraine would continue if the war were to drag on for years. That included a clumsily-released-then-later-retracted letter from progressive lawmakers calling for Biden to engage in direct diplomacy with Russia and a small handful of pro-Trump Republican lawmakers vowing not to give “one more dollar” to Ukraine.

The lawmakers in Halifax vented frustration at the outsized media coverage these comments got and said they didn’t reflect the support for Ukraine among the vast majority of both parties.

“It is always easy to pick up on the one or two people who are saying the most provocative things,” Democratic Rep. Sara Jacobs, a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, told Foreign Policy. “By and large, there is broad bipartisan consensus that we need to continue making sure that Ukraine has what it needs to defend itself.”

Risch had a similar message. “There are only a handful of people that are balking at engaging in this struggle in Ukraine. They’re getting a whole lot of ink from you guys,” he said. “So focus on the majority.”

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

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