The removal of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy in the US Congress has cast a dark cloud over the already troubled process of Washington’s military and financial aid for Ukraine, as its counteroffensive against Russia grinds on with little change to the frontlines.
Without a Speaker, the House is unable to pass legislation, and it may be a week or more before a successor is elected – throwing America’s military backing for Kyiv into doubt.
The vote to remove McCarthy follows a weekend deal in which funding for the government was extended for 45 days – but in which no provision was made for fresh aid to Ukraine. That left the Biden administration’s $24 billion request for fresh military aid, submitted to Congress in the summer, in limbo. It also left the coffers dangerously low.
US President Joe Biden said at the weekend that he expected McCarthy “to keep his commitment to secure the passage and support needed to help Ukraine as they defend themselves against aggression and brutality.” McCarthy has now lost his role and has ruled out running for Speaker again. While it’s unclear who might succeed him, several potential candidates are skeptical about continuing support for Ukraine at current levels.
McCarthy himself warned: “Our members have a lot of questions, especially on the accountability provisions of what we want to see with the money that gets sent.”
The turmoil in Washington adds to other recent worries for Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. In Slovakia, former pro-Russia Prime Minister Robert Fico’s populist party won parliamentary elections, vowing to stop sending weapons to Ukraine and to thwart its NATO ambitions. And a spat over grain exports with Poland – one of Kyiv’s earliest and most staunch allies – has led Warsaw to warn it could stop arms shipments to its neighbor.
Money and weapons run low
Many analysts estimate that Ukraine’s current “burn rate” of equipment, munitions and maintenance in the conflict with Russia is about $2.5 billion a month, maybe a little higher. Much of the funding for that spending comes from Washington.
Last week, the Pentagon’s Chief Financial Officer, Michael McCord, warned Congressional leaders that money for Ukraine was running low. In a letter subsequently released by House Democrats, McCord said that the Pentagon had about $5.4 billion left in what’s known as presidential drawdown authority, which allows the rapid dispatch of weapons from existing stocks. That’s essentially about two months’ money.
McCord also warned that of the roughly $26 billion that Congress had authorized to replace weapons and equipment that had been sent to Ukraine, only $1.6 billion remains.
One pipeline, the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI), is already empty. McCord told Congressional leaders that “a lack of USAI funding now will delay contracting actions that could negatively impact the department’s ability to purchase essential additional 155 mm artillery and critical munitions essential to the success of Ukraine’s armed forces.”
“Without additional funding now, we would have to delay or curtail assistance to meet Ukraine’s urgent requirements, including for air defense and ammunition that are critical and urgent now as Russia prepares to conduct a winter offensive and continues its bombardment of Ukrainian cities,” he wrote.
Max Bergmann, Director of Europe and Russia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said, “The chaos in the House leaves Ukraine in a dangerous limbo. Let’s be clear, if the US Congress does not pass a funding bill, Ukraine will be in deep trouble. A lot of Ukrainians will die and their ability to fight on will be severely compromised.”
“Without funding the US will not be able to rapidly supply Ukrainian forces,” Bergmann said on X, formerly Twitter.
He also noted that the drawdown authority, which had been raised to $14.5 billion, went back to $100 million on October 1, a drop in the ocean.
Current funding – partially boosted by a revaluation downwards of the equipment being sent – would suggest that there is just about enough funding for the rest of the calendar year.
But for Ukraine’s military planners, the uncertainty is an immense challenge as they try to plot any winter offensive or where to place air defenses.
Bergmann and others also warned that should US funding dwindle or get delayed, European countries won’t be able to pick up the slack. Inventories are already very low, as NATO officials warned Tuesday.
“European militaries already had empty warehouses from decades of under-investment. There isn’t much left to give. Europeans can and should get their industries humming but this again takes time,” Bergmann notes.
“In short, abruptly stopping funding to Ukraine could be catastrophic, leaving it deeply exposed on the battlefield. The US will also lose all credibility with allies everywhere,” says Bergman.
The funding of Ukraine’s war effort by the US has thus far amounted to $113 billion in security, economic and humanitarian aid since the Russian invasion.
‘Incident or systematic’?
While any delays in Western aid for Ukraine will be met with concern in Kyiv, Ukrainian officials have tried to sound a note of optimism in public.
Responding to the news that aid to Ukraine had not been included in last weekend’s temporary funding measure, Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba said: “The question is whether what happened in the US Congress last weekend is an incident or systematic,” Kuleba said on the margins of a meeting with European Union foreign ministers.
“I think it was an incident,” he said.
And on Wednesday, Ukraine’s ambassador in Washington said the embassy has a good dialog with the “vast majority” of likely candidates to replace McCarthy.
Oksana Markarova said on Facebook that there are “many names are already in the discussion” but it was too early to discuss specific candidates.
“I can only say that we have built a good constructive dialog with the vast majority of the names that are being mentioned and their teams,” Markarova said. “We at the Embassy of Ukraine in the USA continue our active work with caucuses, committees, individual congressmen, and of course the Senate to discuss our needs and possible solutions for the next package of assistance to Ukraine.”
But a senior adviser to Zelensky criticized “Western conservative elites” for suggesting that military aid to Ukraine should be suspended.
Mykhailo Podolyak, an adviser to the head of the president’s office, wrote on X Wednesday: “When any of the representatives of Western conservative elites talk about the need to suspend military aid to #Ukraine, I have a direct question: what are your motives? Why are you so insistently against… destroying the Russian army, which has been terrifying democracies for decades, and why are you against drastically reducing #Russia’s ability to conduct ‘special destructive operations’ in different countries and on different continents?”
Podolyak added: “Most importantly, why do you so insistently want Russia to withstand, do some work on its mistakes, reinforce its army, reboot its military-industrial complex and start looking for new opportunities to attack other countries and other – including yours – armies?”
Podolyak did not specifically reference the freezing of US aid to Ukraine in the temporary spending measure approved by Congress at the weekend, nor the ousting of McCarthy late on Tuesday.
Maria Kostenko contributed to this report.