WASHINGTON ― House Republicans who have previously supported Ukraine are in little rush to approve a fifth round of aid amid growing skepticism within their caucus.
The Pentagon says it still has roughly $5.5 billion worth of authority to keep transferring weapons to Kyiv, even though the last Ukraine aid package Congress passed is set to expire at the end of the month.
How? Pentagon lawyers argue that they can use the remaining drawdown authority indefinitely due to a complicated confluence of circumstances arising from the Biden administration miscalculating the value of Ukraine military aid earlier this year.
The miscalculation has prompted an audit from the Pentagon Inspector General, but it’s also given the Defense Department more leeway to keep arming Ukraine even if Congress fails to pass the White House’s latest $25 billion supplemental request in military and economic aid for Kyiv. It also means Republicans who have voted for Ukraine aid in the past don’t feel much urgency to pass another package, even with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy set to travel to Capitol Hill to persuade them otherwise on Thursday.
“I’m not necessarily opposed to supporting the Ukrainians further, but I am opposed to doing it at this point without some sort of explanation from the executive branch, Secretary of Defense [Lloyd Austin] telling us what we are doing with this money and where it’s going and what the end state is,” Rep. Mike Garcia, R-Calif., a defense appropriator, told reporters last week. “You can’t give a blank check to the executive branch.”
Garcia said Republicans have been asking for “oversight and accountability reports from the Ukrainian Congress” but “we haven’t gotten that feedback from Zelenskyy and this parliament.”
Even if the Biden administration maintains it can use the outstanding authorization to keep transferring weapons to Ukraine, another $2.5 billion in funding to backfill U.S. stockpiles of items sent to Kyiv expires at the end of the month absent another supplemental spending bill from Congress.
Defense Appropriations Chairman Ken Calvert, R-Calif., told reporters last week that Congress needs to prioritize passing a defense spending bill, which the House failed to do last week amid a Freedom Caucus revolt, before a Ukraine supplemental.
And Rep. Mike Waltz, R-Fla., who chairs the House Readiness subcommittee on Armed Services, declared “The era of Ukraine’s blank check from Congress is over” in a Fox News op-ed on Monday. Waltz called for conditions on Ukraine aid, without specifying what they should look like.
“There must be policy space between Biden’s current strategy of ‘as long as it takes’ and those demanding “not another dollar,” Waltz wrote.
A $6 billion error
The GOP criticism marks a turnaround from last year, when pro-Ukraine Republicans criticized the Biden administration last year for allowing $2.1 billion in drawdown authority expire at the end of fiscal 2022. Republican senators argued that the Biden administration should have used the expiring funds to give Kyiv additional weapons.
This year, the Pentagon is arguing it can use its remaining $5.5 billion in Ukraine drawdown authority as long as it wants, so long as Secretary of State Antony Blinken notifies Congress of the intent to execute a drawdown before the end of the fiscal year. And because the remaining $5.5 billion is the result of a $6 billion Ukraine drawdown accounting error, the Pentagon argues, those State Department notifications have already taken place. Thus, the Biden administration says, the Ukraine drawdown funds can carry over into FY24.
“Therefore, the department’s execution of a drawdown can extend across fiscal years,” Pentagon spokesman Chris Sherwood told Defense News in a statement. “Drawdowns that the Secretary of State has directed this fiscal year may continue to be executed using the adjusted proper valuation of the defense articles drawn from [the Defense Department’s] inventory, until the monetary cap of the particular existing drawdown is reached.”
The Biden administration has said that the accounting error, first announced in May, stemmed from a miscalculation in the Pentagon’s valuation of weapons aid to Ukraine.
Prior to the accounting error, the Pentagon had calculated the total values of weapons using the projected costs to replace that equipment. Since then, the Pentagon has calculated drawdown amounts using the original cost of the weapons, minus depreciation. This has freed up substantially more drawdown funds to transfer weapons to Ukraine.
Pentagon Inspector General Robert Storch this month announced an audit of the valuation of weapons sent to Ukraine.
The Pentagon “must comply with Federal laws and regulations, and it is important that it be consistently applied” across the department, he said in a statement. “The policies for how to value equipment provided under [presidential drawdown authority] also are not unique to Ukraine assistance and could impact future use of [presidential drawdown authority] for other foreign partners.”
Storch briefed the Senate alongside other inspectors general on Ukraine aid last week. And on Tuesday, four pro-Ukraine Republican senators – including Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky – praised Storch’s appointment as the lead inspector general for Ukraine aid.
“Thanks in large part to the requirements Senate Republicans have attached to our aid since the beginning of Russia’s escalation, the United States has unprecedented visibility into how Ukraine is using American weapons,” said McConnell.
McConnell has made the case for passing additional Ukraine aid on the Senate floor in recent weeks. Zelenskyy will also brief the full Senate on Thursday, but Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., has not made similar arrangements for the wartime leader to do the same in the House – the major obstacle to securing another $25 billion in U.S. support.
It marks a downgrade from Zelenskyy’s last trip to Washington, where leaders in both parties invited him to address a joint meeting of Congress – though the majority of House Republicans skipped that speech.
“The more this drags out and the more it looks like a stalemate and a war of attrition,” the less support it gets,” said House Foreign Affairs Chairman Mike McCaul, R-Texas. “And that’s why it’s going to be very important for Zelenskyy to talk about what is your plan for victory, what do you need? So we can go to the administration and say this is what they need in a supplemental.”
Bryant Harris is the Congress reporter for Defense News. He has covered U.S. foreign policy, national security, international affairs and politics in Washington since 2014. He has also written for Foreign Policy, Al-Monitor, Al Jazeera English and IPS News.