What’s the Future for Aid to Ukraine?
Ukrainian resistance requires continuous aid from outside supporters, particularly the United States. So far that it has been forthcoming. However, as aid opponents increasingly call for negotiations, a political battle will be generated when currently appropriated aid runs out in the summer. Although supporters will likely prevail, there could be some shifts in policy, and the long term is uncertain. In any case, Ukrainian demands and exhaustion of inventories will prompt some shifts in composition.
Aid is critical for Ukraine's survival.
It is worth starting with the basics. Why is this aid needed? The answer is threefold. First, armies in conflict require a continuous flow of weapons and ammunition. For example, Ukraine reportedly fires 3,000 artillery rounds per day, or 90,000 per month. That is equal to the entire U.S. annual production in 2021. Ukraine's peacetime stocks probably lasted only a few weeks. Second, there is the need to replace lost equipment. According to unclassified sources, Ukraine has lost 457 of the 858 tanks it began the war with, 478 of 1,184 infantry fighting vehicles, and 247 of 1,800 pieces of artillery. Finally, Ukraine has likely doubled the size of its armed forces, and all these new units need equipment and training. Aid from the United States, NATO, and other global partners has allowed Ukraine to meet all these wartime demands. Without a continuing and high level of support, Ukraine's resistance would soon falter and collapse.
U.S. aid has totaled $113 billion so far.
This has come in four packages appropriated by Congress: March ($13 billion), May ($40 billion), September ($14 billion), and December ($45 billion).
The aid has gone for a variety of uses. What is of most interest here is the military aid provided to Ukraine. That totals $50 billion and covers equipment transferred from U.S. stocks, new equipment procured, and training. An earlier CSIS commentary, Aid to Ukraine Explained in Six Charts, explains these categories in more detail.
Future aid packages might contain jets.
Every two weeks or so the administration announces a new aid package. These packages specify how it proposes to spend the money that Congress has provided. Public attention has focused on new capabilities—Patriot in early January, then tanks in early February, and, most recently, long-range strike missiles. The political dynamics have become familiar: President Zelensky asks for a new capability, which the United States and its allies are reluctant to provide. Zelensky insists, pressure builds, and the United States relents. Russia complains about "escalation" but keeps doing what it is doing. Sometimes there is less to the announcement than meets the eye, but the political point is made.
The next major debate will be over jet aircraft. It would make more sense to upgrade Ukrainian aircraft by adapting them to use NATO subsystems and munitions and to provide additional Soviet-era aircraft from the global markets. The Ukrainian Air Force could easily assimilate these modified aircraft. However, the allure of "NATO fighters" as a "game changer" is strong. Zelensky has made the pitch repeatedly. The United Kingdom has already opened the door, agreeing to train pilots. President Biden has stated that the United States would not provide F-16s, and other officials have sensibly suggested that rebuilding the Ukrainian Air Force would be a post-conflict effort. Nevertheless, as with tanks, the pressure may become so strong that the United States feels obligated to do something. This might entail training some pilots and moving towards standing up a squadron at some undefined point in the future, much as the United Kingdom has done. This will meet the near-term political need even if it has no immediate battlefield impact.
Meanwhile, the flow of ammunition, armored vehicles, trucks, engineering supplies, and medical equipment will continue. These will have a battlefield impact. Some inventories are running low, so expect substitutions, purchases from foreign governments, and new production.
Current funding will run out by midsummer.
In December, Congress appropriated $45 billion for aid to Ukraine, which means that the administration will not need to ask Congress for more money for some time. But when?
In theory, the money covers the entire fiscal year, which runs through September 30. However, that does not seem likely. Spread over nine months (January to September), $45 billion implies spending at the rate of $5 billion per month. The previously appropriated $67 billion covered 10 months (March to December) for an average expenditure of $6.7 billion per month. If that rate of expenditure continues, the $45 billion would last 6.7 months and run out in mid-July. In asking for a lower rate of expenditure, the administration might have been hedging its bets, expecting some easing of combat intensity or even some kind of ceasefire. That could still happen, but the lack of any current movement toward negotiation or reduction in violence makes it unlikely.
Surging aid might provide a decisive edge, but at great risk.
Many voices are recommending that the United States surge aid to strengthen Ukraine for the expected spring offensive. The additional equipment might break the Russian forces and force their retreat.
However, there is great risk. First, Ukrainian forces may not be fully trained on the equipment they receive. This would lead to higher losses and wasted material. Second, aid funding would run out sooner, accelerating the date at which the administration must go to Congress for more money. Finally, if the battlefield result is not decisive, voices calling for negotiation would become stronger. If a surge does not produce victory, the argument will become, what’s the point of continuing to spend tens of billions of dollars?
Appropriating additional aid will spark a political battle.
Support for Ukraine is highly bipartisan. The $40 billion appropriated in May, the only standalone aid bill, passed the Senate 86–11 and the House 368–57. In December, Congress added $8 billion to the $37 billion that the administration had requested. This indicates strong bipartisan support. Nevertheless, polls show that "war fatigue" is growing in the United States as it is in Europe.
Opposition to aid comes from both the populist right and progressive left. Congressman Matthew Gaetz (R-FL) introduced a bill calling for the United States to "end its military and financial aid to Ukraine, and [urge] all combatants to reach a peace agreement." Although the bill will go nowhere, it indicates where some Republican members are.
In October, a group of 30 Democratic progressives signed a letter urging President Biden "to make vigorous diplomatic efforts in support of a negotiated settlement and ceasefire, engage in direct talks with Russia, [and] explore prospects for a new European security arrangement acceptable to all parties." Although the group withdrew the letter quickly under White House pressure, the sentiment remains.
Indeed, the notion of negotiating a peaceful settlement is attractive as a way to end the violence (a progressive concern), reduce the threat of waste and abuse (a populist concern), and keep funds inside the United States (a universal concern). However, negotiations would only produce an in-place ceasefire that would solidify Russia's control of the 18 percent of Ukraine it occupies.
In normal political times, the opponents of aid would raise their issues but lack the votes to affect policy in a major way, but these are not normal political times. As was seen in the extended voting for the speaker of the house, a small group of Republicans can have outsized influence on policy. Although aid opponents are unlikely to make this a do-or-die issue—federal spending, cultural issues, and investigations loom larger—this constitutes a major uncertainty. The populist right and progressive left could combine to force some shift in policy although a complete cessation of aid is unlikely.
The administration has been adamant that its support is unequivocal and open-ended. However, recent reports indicate long-term concern about how long the high level of aid can be sustained.
Battlefield success and honest government are key determinants for support.
Both Russia and Ukraine are preparing offensives. The Russians have incorporated their mobilized personnel and increased attacks in the Donetsk area. The Ukrainians are assimilating new equipment and having troops trained in Europe. These dueling offensives will soon launch. If Ukraine can show progress on the ground, supporters will be more inclined to provide aid. In addition to the satisfaction of success, there will be the prospect of the war ending. Fears about a "forever war" undermine support for aid by making it appear that the commitment will go on indefinitely.
Donors also want to believe that the aid is well used by a selfless and determined Ukrainian people. So far, that appears to be the case. No donated weapons have shown up where they do not belong, such as in the Middle East, nor have oligarchs appeared to have benefited from outside funds. To ensure this does not happen, Zelensky has publicly fired certain officials accused of corruption, and the United States has established auditing structures to ensure the appropriate use of resources.
Nevertheless, before the war, the Corruption Perception Index ranked Ukraine at 122 out of 180 countries. If photos appear showing equipment discarded because of a lack of maintenance or articles describe how oligarchs diverted funds intended for the government, the bipartisan consensus will fray.
Increased oversight and an emphasis on military aid might be a potential compromise.
Although the most recent package contains $27 million for increased oversight, concerns abound that resources are inadequately safeguarded. Therefore, the new Congress may call for enhanced oversight through new organizations such as an analog to the Special Inspector General for Afghan Reconstruction, hearings to focus attention on the issue, authorities to make auditing more effective, or additional resources to support the effort. It is a demand that the administration could live with even if Ukraine might find it intrusive.
In an extreme case, future aid appropriations might move away from economic aid to the Ukrainian government and focus on military aid. Economic aid, though desperately needed by the Ukrainian government, is vulnerable to the charge that U.S. domestic communities need help more. Other countries, many of which are more comfortable providing "soft" rather than lethal support, might pick up the economic aid. Conversely, military aid would directly affect the outcome of the war making it more acceptable to Congress and the U.S. public.
The bottom line is that aid will continue through the coming year, but the smooth process of the last year will become bumpy and some changes in policy may be necessary.
Mark F. Cancian is a retired Marine colonel and senior adviser with the International Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.