GOP Speaker Mike Johnson’s Bizarre Dance on Ukraine Aid Is Only Part of the Problem

CongressInternational Affairs Mike Johnson
GOP Speaker Mike Johnson’s Bizarre Dance on Ukraine Aid Is Only Part of the Problem

Republican Speaker of the House Mike Johnson has, for weeks, refused to bring a $95 billion foreign aid bill, which includes Ukraine funding, to a vote, mostly because if he does, a bunch of far-right bomb throwers might come for his job. Besides being a great and normal way to run a country, it seems to have spurred an identity crisis in Johnson, who, on one hand, wants to be a Reagan Republican standing up to Russia, but on the other, knows his old MAGA crew will probably not let him live that down.

Johnson may now be trying to split the difference, seeking to get Ukraine assistance approved while holding on to this miserable gig as Speaker. This has renewed a little optimism that Kyiv might get long-delayed and desperately needed military aid. But the emphasis is on a little, because Johnson is trying to make Ukraine aid more palatable to skeptics in his party.

That is requiring tweaks and tradeoffs that may make the legislation untenable, including in the Senate. None of it guarantees that the GOP holdouts will get on board, or that Johnson stays in power

It’s one big mess, but a pretty revealing one when it comes to the future of U.S. aid to Ukraine.

Just a quick recap: Congress has tried and failed to pass Ukraine assistance since last year. The package has bipartisan support, but a growing faction of Republicans (guided in large part by Donald Trump) have increasingly opposed more money for Kyiv. Republicans then decided they couldn’t back Ukraine unless Biden did something about the border. Senators brokered a bipartisan (but extremely hawkish) border deal alongside aid for Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. That quickly died, also because of Trump.

Finally, in mid-February, the Senate advanced a $95 billion aid package, which included about $60 billion for Ukraine. More than 20 Republicans joined with Democrats to vote in favor, and three Democratic senators opposed it because it failed to put conditions on aid for Israel.

This legislation has stalled in the House since. But, over Easter weekend, Johnson told Fox News that he wanted to get Ukraine aid done with “some important innovations.” The so-called innovations Johnson mentioned include giving support in the form of loans; using seized Russian assets to fund the war effort; or tying Ukraine support to undoing a Biden administration pause on liquified natural gas approvals. (Speaker Johnson’s office has not yet returned a request for comment.)

First, the loan thing. Trump suggested it, so Johnson can dangle that to skeptical Republicans on the premise that this isn’t a free giveaway to Kyiv. However, everyone understands Ukraine is unlikely to pay this back any time soon. It also misses how a big chunk of this Ukraine funding works: much of it goes back to the Pentagon to upgrade and replenish US weapons stocks since we gave the old stuff to Ukraine. Still, some Republican and Democratic lawmakers appear open to no-interest and waivable loans if it means something gets to Ukraine.

Next, is the idea of using Russia’s frozen assets to fund Ukraine. This borrows from bills in both the House and Senate that would authorize the seizure of Russian funds for Ukraine’s reconstruction. Versions of this idea are gaining traction, including outside the U.S. Though Johnson called the set-up “pure poetry,” it would be an unprecedented move. Some scholars are wary it would undermine international law and shake the world’s US-led financial system. Plus, leveraging those frozen Russian assets now eliminates a bargaining tool in possible future negotiations with Moscow. 

Johnson has also floated linking Ukraine aid to a reversal of a Biden administration pause on liquified natural gas approvals. As Splinter’s Dave Levitan wrote, this would “undo what many saw as a significant climate victory from Biden.” The White House rejected initial reports that it was open to this deal, and is pushing House Republicans to pass the Senate-approved bill to avoid any more delays. These machinations around energy and other measures also might frustrate otherwise Ukraine-supportive Democrats. Still, as one unnamed House Democrat told Axios, “personally, I would be a yes.”

None of this guarantees that Ukraine aid passes. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), who has already filed a motion to oust Johnson, warned him against moving Ukraine aid. If she pursues her motion, Johnson may need Democratic votes to stay in power – and Ukraine aid might be part of any deal. The so-called easy path – voting on the Senate-approved $95 billion foreign aid bill – also looks a lot more complicated now, because at least some Democrats are beginning to question the U.S.’s troubling carte blanche support of Israel.

Which leaves the United States, its allies, and Ukraine stuck in the same position: broad Congressional support to get Ukraine money, but no pathway to do it. The US has given more than $67 billion to Ukraine, according to the Kiel Institute, but right now, Washington is doing the military aid equivalent of searching the couch cushions for spare change. Europe now beats the U.S. in total aid to Ukraine, but it can’t yet make up the gap in American military support.

And as creative and resourceful as Ukraine has been, the underlying equation of this conflict has never shifted: Kyiv depends on Western aid. That assistance may not guarantee victory, but Ukraine’s odds are pretty bleak without it. But whether or not this latest Congressional package passes, in whatever form, it will likely not be enough to win the war in one season or even the next year. This aid is a bridge, but a bridge to no-one-knows exactly where. 

Some of the Republican opposition to Ukraine aid are just straw man arguments, but it should force the Biden administration and lawmakers who believe backing Ukraine aligns with U.S. interests and values to lay out, if not necessarily an end-game, what a long-haul commitment realistically requires.

The American line on Ukraine has been some version of the U.S. is “going to be with you for as long as it takes.” But as long as what takes? Ukraine seeks to recapture all the territory within its internationally recognized borders, including Crimea. It’s less clear what the U.S. wants: Is it that version of Ukrainian victory? Is it weakening Russia? Or something else?

The politics of Ukraine support – in the United States, definitely, but potentially in Europe, too – may only get harder. Ukraine’s staunchest supporters are going to have to reckon with this reality, fighting for what they believe and need, perhaps, but being sober about what’s possible. It’s a bad look to abandon your allies and friends, but maybe so is stringing them along.  

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