Yesterday the Biden administration announced that it would send an additional $1 billion in military aid to Ukraine as the country continues to combat invading Russian forces. The new aid package comes on the heels of The Wall Street Journal reporting earlier this week that the U.S. is now "sending roughly $130 million a day in military aid to Ukraine plus economic and other assistance."
American financial support for Ukraine has largely been uncontroversial in Congress. Lawmakers approved a $40 billion aid package in May, adding billions of dollars to the money President Joe Biden originally requested. "The leaders of both parties raised few questions about how much money was being spent or what it would be used for," wrote The New York Times. Just 11 senators voted against the bill's passage as it breezed through Congress.
One of them, Sen. Rand Paul (R–Ky.), drew criticism from both parties for delaying Senate approval of the $40 billion package after expressing concern that Congress was "trying yet again to ram through a spending bill" and had failed to outline oversight mechanisms. Paul unsuccessfully sought to add language to the bill appointing an inspector general to supervise the spending. Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R–Ky.) emphasized the need to get help to Ukraine "right now," and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D–N.Y.) charged that Paul "doesn't want to aid Ukraine."
Unfortunately, those arguments are helping lawmakers avoid important debates about the amount and nature of aid the U.S. is sending to Ukraine, as well as the potential for future misuse as billions of fast-passed dollars flood into a war zone without proper oversight. American politicians have chosen a risky course of action and are neglecting to realistically discuss the U.S. role in this conflict.
American officials told The Wall Street Journal that they have "little direct knowledge" of where equipment goes once it reaches the Ukrainian government. One military aid component of the May package, totaling $6 billion, is a transfer account that Congress doesn't have strong control over. "The statutory language requires that [the Department of Defense] report to Congress 15 days before any transfers occur," explains the Center for Strategic International Studies. "Congress could block such transfers, but that is difficult to do politically and procedurally."
Oversight experts warn that issues surrounding transfers are inevitable. "Even if it's a noble cause, there's going to be theft. There's going to be misconduct," warned Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko, whose office has uncovered rampant misuse of U.S. funds that took place during nation-building efforts in Afghanistan. "If there's one thing we learned from Afghanistan, you've got to have oversight in the beginning."
Many components of the May package and other aid installments deserve more scrutiny from lawmakers than they have received. Not-insignificant chunks of money are going toward countering "Russian disinformation and propaganda narratives," bolstering the Department of Justice's "efforts to pursue high value asset seizures from sanctioned individuals," paying the salaries of Ukrainian government officials, and prepping munitions for military skirmishes that aren't related to the conflict in Ukraine. In rushing the passage of aid, Congress has neglected to debate whether these are appropriate spending priorities for the U.S.—especially, as Paul notes, when the American economy is already in such bad shape.
And there's a deeper, more conflict-relevant concern at hand. The end goals for U.S. assistance are still murky, even as American politicians repeat their opposition to Russian aggression and support for Ukraine regaining its territory and sovereignty. Rajan Menon, director of the Grand Strategy program at Defense Priorities and a professor at the City College of New York, argues that the U.S. must determine what its precise aims are in order to shape responsible policy. Without establishing clear objectives, politicians can shift the goal posts and more easily justify staying involved. Menon asks, for instance, whether the eventual goal is to restore Ukrainian borders to their pre-2022 state or if it's to reclaim Crimea.
"The latter is…ambitious, it's far more dangerous, and it will make the war even longer than [it] otherwise will be," Menon explains. "To say…this is all up to Ukraine to decide is to overlook the fact that we are its principal arms supplier and therefore are deeply implicated in this war. Kyiv is certainly entitled to make its choices but that doesn't release us from the obligation to make our one."
In eschewing proper debate over military aid to Ukraine, American lawmakers are opting out of an uncomfortable—but necessary—conversation. "If we ramp up arms supplies to Ukraine, which is already urgently calling for more, we should take into account that Russia may at some point treat us as a co-belligerent," Menon points out. "Simply assuming that that would be a bridge too far for them would be a mistake." U.S. politicians need to discuss the line not to be crossed before America is effectively acting as a co-combatant rather than allowing Russia to make that determination itself.
Providing military aid to Ukraine strikes many Americans as the right move. It might seem like the best available option, given that alternatives include putting American boots on the ground or securing a no-fly zone over Ukrainian airspace—both of which would prove disastrous.
But those impulses don't relieve U.S. lawmakers of their responsibility to ensure aid is being directed toward appropriate uses and being used properly. To willingly avoid those discussions all but ensures that the war in Ukraine will be another conflict involving fiscal irresponsibility on America's part.
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