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Control Of U.S. Congress Could Flip. What Does It Mean For Aid For Ukraine?

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Control Of U.S.— Ukrainian troops smashed through Russian forces in the northeast Kharkiv region in September, a stunning counteroffensive driven by Ukrainian determination, shrewd battlefield tactics, and powerful Western weaponry.

The United States has supplied more weaponry, financial support, and other aid than all other NATO allies combined: more than $60 billion since Russia invaded in February, launching the biggest land war in Europe since World War II.

That support has persisted despite deep partisan divisions in Washington, D.C., rifts that have been on full display in the election campaign for Congress, which culminates in the November 8 vote.

But while Russia’s war has not topped Americans’ concerns, a growing number of Republican lawmakers — and a smaller number of Democrats — have voiced misgivings about an open-ended financial commitment to Ukraine.

Control Of U.S. - Members of a delegation of the upper house of U.S. Congress led by the leader of the Republican minority in the Senate, Mitch McConnell (second left), visited Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on May 14.
Members of a delegation of the upper house of U.S. Congress led by the leader of the Republican minority in the Senate, Mitch McConnell (second left), visited Kyiv to meet with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on May 14.

Polls show Republicans are poised to gain control of the House of Representatives, all of whose 435 seats are up for grabs. Control of the Senate, where 34 of 100 seats are being contested, is an open question, with just a handful of seats determining who will set the chamber’s agenda. Democrats have controlled both chambers since 2020.

Republican leaders say U.S. commitment to Ukraine cannot be unlimited.

“I think people are going to be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank check to Ukraine,” Representative Kevin McCarthy, who will become leader of the House if Republicans take control, said in an interview with interview with Punchbowl News.

As House speaker, McCarthy would have wide latitude to appoint Ukraine-skeptic lawmakers as the chairs of the budgetary and the foreign affairs committees, as well as the power to decide which bills come up for a vote.

Preelection polls show record inflation, gasoline prices, rising crime rates, a looming recession, and other economic issues top the lists of American concerns, issues traditionally viewed as strengths for Republicans. The Ukraine war, Russia’s nuclear saber-rattling, and other foreign policy issues have been little seen in election campaigns across the country or in the ads flooding Americans’ TV sets.

Still, a small number of congressional lawmakers have publicly questioned President Joe Biden’s surge of weapons to Ukraine.

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In May, the House voted 368-57 in favor of a bill allocating $40 billion in aid to Ukraine. All 57 votes in opposition were from Republicans.

The bill ultimately cleared the Senate, but the vote was a sign of discontent by a vocal wing of the Republican Party critical of years of U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

John Herbst, a former U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, called McCarthy’s comments concerning but did not expect Republican control of one or both chambers of Congress to materially affect support for Ukraine.

“I am confident that we will continue to send substantial aid to Ukraine,” said Herbst, who is now an analyst at the Atlantic Council, a Washington-based think tank.

“A little bit less to my mind is plausible because we are giving them so much, but I’d be surprised if there was a major drop in our support,” he told RFE/RL.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (left) and Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska attend a meeting with members of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 20.
U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (left) and Ukrainian first lady Olena Zelenska attend a meeting with members of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on July 20.

The majority of Republicans “seem to understand in their gut the need for military assistance,” he said.

If the Republicans take control of the Senate, meanwhile, Mitch McConnell will become that chamber’s leader. The long-serving senator has been more forceful in his public statements in support of Ukraine.

“Assisting Ukraine is not some feel-good symbolic gesture. It is literally an investment in our own national security and that of our allies,” he said in a speech on the Senate floor in September.

“The Biden Administration and our allies need to do more to supply the tools Ukraine needs to thwart Russian aggression,” McConnell said.

Democratic Doubts

It’s not just Republicans voicing doubts.

Last month, 30 Democratic House lawmakers who make up the left-wing Congressional Progressive Caucus sent a letter to Biden calling for his administration to, among other things, negotiate with the Kremlin to end the war.

The letter, which had been drafted months earlier, before Ukraine’s counteroffensive in Kharkiv, was retracted days later, following criticism from fellow Democrats, including some of the signatories themselves.

Zelenska receives a standing ovation from members of Congress on July 20.
Zelenska receives a standing ovation from members of Congress on July 20.

Still, any indications that Republicans — or Democrats — are getting cold feet on more aid to Ukraine could embolden Russian President Vladimir Putin.

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“U.S. messaging is critical for influencing Moscow’s calculus in Ukraine,” Rob Lee, a former U.S. Marine and military expert at King’s College London, said in an October 24 tweet. “If the Kremlin thinks the U.S. is committed to long-term support to Ukraine, it will be more likely to negotiate sooner.”

Representative Mike Turner, who is set to take over the chairmanship of the House Intelligence Committee if Republicans win control, said that “no one in Republican leadership has called for an end to aid for Ukraine.”

During a visit to Kyiv on November 3, Republican Senator Rob Portman and Democratic Senator Chris Coons both reiterated U.S. support for President Volodymyr Zelenskiy and said it would continue regardless of the outcome of the midterm elections.

“I am confident that bipartisan robust American support for the fight of the Ukrainian people will continue in Congress,” Coons told reporters later.

Bread-And-Butter, Not Guns-And-Butter

Opinion polls asking Americans their views on Ukraine provide a mixed picture.

According to a poll conducted by Pew Research in September, a growing number of Republicans and Republican-leaning voters say Washington is providing too much aid to Ukraine: 32 percent in September compared with 17 percent in March. Among Democrats, 11 percent say the United States is providing too much support, up from 8 percent in May.

Overall, the poll found about 18 percent of Americans think Washington is not providing enough support — down from 42 percent from March.

Some lawmakers have voiced concern about how U.S. aid is being used by Ukraine, a reflection of the country’s reputation for endemic corruption and weak rule of law.

Daniel Vajdich, whose Washington-based firm Yorktown Solutions has lobbied on behalf of Ukraine, said Kyiv should do “a better job” explaining how it is using the aid, especially in the nonmilitary sphere.

Ukraine will have to take a more “nuanced” approach in the messaging when lobbying Republicans and Democrats, he said.

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Recession Looms

The November 8 vote is called the midterm election because it falls midway into the four-year term of Biden, a Democrat. Historically, the party that controls the White House nearly always loses seats in Congress in the midterms.

Also historically, economic issues are the main drivers for American voters.

If the U.S. economy sinks into a recession in the coming months as many economists expect, support for such high levels of aid for Ukraine could weaken further.

Still, evidence of Russian war crimes could offset Ukraine fatigue in the West, said William Courtney, a former U.S. ambassador and analyst at the RAND Corporation, a Washington-based think tank funded in part by the U.S. Defense Department.

A protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Washington, D.C., on March 6.
A protest against the Russian invasion of Ukraine, in Washington, D.C., on March 6.

“As Ukrainians take more land that’s been occupied by the Russians and atrocities are uncovered, this will bolster political support for Ukraine in the United States and Europe,” he told RFE/RL.

“As long as Ukrainian forces maintain battlefield momentum, there’s no sign that even with some shifts — for instance, if the Republicans take control of the House — that this will affect the amount of aid,” Courtney said.

Fearful of a cutback under Republican control, some backers have pushed for locking down more Ukraine aid in December, before the new Congress formally begins work the following month. The aid would be part of a larger spending bill to ensure weapons and humanitarian aid continue well into 2023.

Members of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, a diaspora organization, will travel to Washington after the election to lobby for additional aid this year.

Spokesman Andrij Dobrianskiy said the council is also encouraging Ukrainians living in the United States — estimated at more than 1 million people — to meet with their representatives following the election and encourage them to visit the country.

“We would want to make sure that the aid to Ukraine is ongoing no matter what happens,” he told RFE/RL. “Get them to Ukraine. That is the No. 1 advocacy tool for Ukraine.”

With reporting by RFE/RL Correspondent Mike Eckel in Prague, and AP
  • Todd Prince

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