Two senators are pushing to boost shipments of lethal weapons to Kyiv as the West nervously watches Russian troops and equipment mass along Ukraine’s eastern border.
Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) are seeking to increase Pentagon funding to arm Ukraine by another $50 million as part of annual defense policy legislation being debated on the Senate floor.
But their effort, along with a heap of other proposals from senators in both parties, is in limbo after a push to secure votes on amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act hit a roadblock on the floor last week. And those measures could founder if senators don’t strike a deal when they return to finalize the defense bill after Thanksgiving.
The bipartisan package — which would boost the Pentagon’s security assistance to Ukraine to $350 million and wall off $125 million of that for lethal weapons — comes amid concerns on both sides of the Atlantic that Russia’s latest military buildup on Ukraine’s border could be different this time: a prelude to invasion.
Calls are getting louder from Capitol Hill for the Biden administration to act quickly to deter Russia, including by supplying Ukraine with more weapons.
In September, the Biden administration announced a new arms and military aid deal with Kyiv worth $60 million that included Javelin missiles and more intensive cooperation on cyber and research and development efforts. The pact increased U.S. military assistance for Kyiv to about $400 million in 2022, underscoring deepening unease in Washington over the grinding seven-year conflict.
Portman, who co-chairs the Senate Ukraine Caucus, called for a vote on his and Shaheen's measure. He also urged President Joe Biden to send more assistance on top of the new delivery of a pair of Coast Guard patrol boats.
"I urge the administration to provide further assistance in the form [of] anti-air and anti-armor capabilities which will be vital to deterring this latest Russian threat," Portman said in a statement Wednesday. "We must do all we can to stand with our ally Ukraine at this time."
Asked about the transfer of more lethal weapons, a senior administration official said the U.S. has “demonstrated that the United States is willing to use a number of tools to address harmful Russian actions and we will not hesitate from making use of those and other tools in the future.”
Ukrainian officials say about 92,000 Russian troops have taken up new positions near their borders, along with tanks, artillery and armed vehicles that could be used for a rapid offensive push.
The Biden administration has been warning European allies about Moscow’s intentions for weeks, sharing intelligence and huddling with military officials across the continent. Both the EU and NATO have also expressed concern over the new buildup. The Kremlin has pushed back, saying that the presence of NATO troops in Ukraine is a threat to Russian security.
On Tuesday, two refitted former U.S. Coast Guard patrol boats arrived at the Black Sea port of Odessa, a delivery meant to buttress the tiny Ukrainian navy as it faces down growing Russian activity near its shores. "We appreciate the contribution of the United States to deter the armed aggression of the Russian Federation against Ukraine," naval commander Oleksiy Neyizhpapa said in a statement.
The Defense Department originally requested $250 million for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, the main Pentagon pot of money used to arm the country, in its fiscal 2022 budget.
Increased financial support to Ukraine has deep, bipartisan support on Capitol Hill. Competing defense policy bills in the House and the Senate already would boost the account to $300 million.
Portman and Shaheen want to green light even more assistance. Their amendment would boost the overall account to $350 million, a $100 million increase from Biden’s request. That money would go toward weapons, raising the minimum amount dedicated to lethal aid from $75 million to $125 million.
The increase would be offset by reducing the Senate bill’s authorized funding to train and equip Afghanistan’s now-defunct armed forces. The Senate Armed Services Committee approved the bill, with the Afghanistan security aid, in July before the Taliban takeover of the country.
The defense policy bill doesn’t allocate money, however, and would need to be matched in annual appropriations legislation to become a reality. And lawmakers aren’t expected to iron out a compromise policy bill until late next month.
Senators are at a standstill on amendments to the must-pass defense bill. Armed Services Chair Jack Reed (D-R.I.) sought an agreement last week to hold votes on 19 amendments, including the Portman-Shaheen measure. But Reed was blocked by several GOP senators seeking to secure votes on their own amendments.
The Senate is set to hold a procedural vote to curtail debate on the defense authorization bill when it returns on Monday. There’s still time for Democrats and Republicans to work out their differences and incorporate more amendments into the bill before it passes, but the Ukraine proposal may get shelved if the blockade continues.
Members of Congress have flirted with the idea of including language in the 2022 defense bill that would transfer one of the U.S. Army’s two Iron Dome air defense batteries to Ukraine, though the complex system wouldn’t be ready for months even if the provision were included.
The latest proposals for arming the Ukrainians is part of a seven-year debate in Washington and the capitals of Europe about how to deter Russia from moving beyond the territory it has already captured in Crimea and eastern Ukraine in its 2014 invasion.
The war in eastern Ukraine has ground on since then, settling into a series of sporadic artillery duels amid largely static lines in Donbas, leaving the situation a festering crisis that neither side has been able to solve.
In June, after about 100,000 Russian troops massed near the border, POLITICO reported that the Biden administration had put together a $100 million military aid package for Ukraine, though it was later shelved after the Russians partially withdrew to their home bases. Under consideration were short-range air defense systems, small arms and anti-tank weapons, marking a departure from the non-lethal weapons the Biden administration provided in two other packages.
NATO's top military officer, Adm. Rob Bauer said in an interview on the sidelines of a security conference in Halifax, Nova Scotia, on Saturday that the buildup of Russian troops and equipment near the border is part of a larger campaign.
“There's other indications in terms of other activities in the cyber domain in activities in Ukraine that most likely have the intent to destabilize Ukraine,” Bauer said. “And so it is not only the troops that are there, but it is a combination of everything including the rhetoric of the Russians” that is setting off alarms in Brussels.
On Wednesday, the U.S. embassy in Kyiv issued a new alert to American citizens not to travel near Ukraine’s borders due to “concerning reports of unusual Russian military activity near Ukraine’s borders and in occupied Crimea.”