MADRID — President Joe Biden and lawmakers from both parties are bringing an urgent objective to this week’s wartime NATO summit: Keep weapons and money flowing to Ukraine for many more arduous months of its battle with Russia.
Political headwinds back home started complicating that goal even before the U.S. delegation was set to arrive in Spain’s capital. Pressed by domestic economic challenges and a desire to see European nations contribute more to Ukraine’s defense, U.S. lawmakers appear more wary of committing further military aid for Ukraine or slapping new sanctions on Russia — alarming Kyiv and eastern flank allies who fear war fatigue setting in among the West.
This year’s NATO summit was already going to be the most important gathering of the defensive alliance since the fall of the Soviet Union; as the geopolitics of the Ukraine-Russia war shift, the meeting’s historical import grows. On the table is not just supplying weapons Ukraine needs to defend against Moscow’s forces, but countering the real threat that the war could spill over into NATO territory and metastasize across the globe, intensifying worries from national security to food scarcity.
As Biden looks to hold together the transatlantic alliance and Kyiv aims to keep Russia’s brutality on the front pages, this week’s summit gives the U.S. delegation a chance to increase pressure on allied nations to accelerate the transfer of arms and humanitarian aid to Ukraine before it’s too late.
“We just sent them $40 billion. I mean, that’s literally putting your money where your mouth is,” said Sen. Angus King (I-Maine), who visited Finland, Latvia and Turkey last week. “So I don’t think we need to convince anybody where Americans are. We’re there. Now, where we’ll be in six months, I don’t think anybody can predict. But realistically there is a half-life to these issues.”
Already, tension is building within NATO as powers such as Germany and France deliver amounts of weapons and aid at a pace slower than their economic power suggests they’re capable of.
Tiny countries with fresh memories of Russian occupation such as Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania have all opened their armories to provide for Ukraine’s defense. Estonia, in particular, has already donated the equivalent of one-third of its annual defense budget this year. Lithuania has risked the Kremlin’s wrath by cutting off railway resupply to the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad, and Poland has become the jumping-off point for the global effort to arm and supply Ukraine, along with donating more than 200 tanks and other weapons. Warsaw has also focused on getting Ukrainian agricultural products out of the country.
One defense official from an Eastern European NATO country, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that for nations in that region “the only thing that matters” is pushing Russians out of Ukraine.
The evidence so far “clearly indicates that when it comes to weapons aid, there is room to do 10 times more,” the official added. “When it comes to sanctions, then there is room to do much more.”
‘Easy to lose your intensity’
The calculus is different in Washington, where many are trying to balance the moral imperative of supporting Ukraine with the challenge of keeping American voters on board with helping Ukraine despite domestic challenges from inflation to social-issue tensions. Meanwhile, countries on Russia’s border see a grinding war that is likely still in its early stages.
That dynamic is causing fresh worries on Capitol Hill that, as the midterm elections approach, the overwhelmingly bipartisan support that came with previous aid packages could fade. Members of Congress may also start looking for an offramp from a biting sanctions regime that’s had the unintended consequence of contributing to high consumer costs for Americans.
“Both here and in Europe, it’s easy to lose your intensity on this issue as it goes on,” said Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of his party’s leadership who is joining the congressional delegation in Madrid. “But I think it’s really important to understand the incredible difference it will make to both Europe and the world for the next 20 or 25 years if Putin wins or if Putin loses. And we can’t lose sight of that.”
It’s unclear whether Biden will ask Congress for additional funding before the end of the fiscal year in September, as it continues to draw from a $40 billion Ukraine package approved in May. Congressional leaders from both parties have rallied behind the administration’s aid requests, though, and are vowing to continue approving new waves of cash until Russia is defeated.
“I am prepared to vote for [another aid package] if necessary,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who is also part of the delegation this week. “They’re in a life-or-death struggle.”
There are already some cracks in U.S. support for the war.
Allies of former President Donald Trump are continuing to blast the Ukraine aid packages as irresponsible, while several Trump-endorsed candidates are set to replace retiring GOP senators who have been staunch supporters of the alliance.
Biden might actually be looking forward to his week among friends and allies in Europe, as the myriad domestic challenges are quickly spiraling.
Inflation is crushing American consumers, with senators like King saying that his office is fielding angry calls from constituents wondering why the U.S. is sending money to Ukraine when gas costs $5 per gallon. And many lawmakers — even those who have been the most eager to help Ukraine — are calling on European allies to step up and match what the U.S. has done.
“I do worry” about Ukraine fading from the headlines, said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas). “But I think at the same time the Europeans need to realize that this is their backyard and they need to step up. And they can’t just continue to depend on Uncle Sam to keep writing the checks.”
And some progressive Democrats have suggested they might not support another aid package unless the Pentagon can show that it’s properly tracking the flow of weapons into Ukraine.
“If we’re going to be effective in supporting Ukraine, then we need that money to go to the right places,” Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) said in a brief interview. “And that requires transparency to know if that’s happening.”
Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), who are leading the congressional delegation this week, have argued that the level of U.S. aid will never be enough until Ukraine defeats Russia.
“The longer the war drags on, the more challenging it becomes, particularly as we get into the winter months,” Shaheen said. “But that’s why doing everything that we can now to help the Ukrainians ensure that they have access to the weapons they need, to address the economic challenges that they’re facing, is really important.”
‘There’s a bit of fraying’
One Western European diplomat told POLITICO that “Putin needs to bear a cost for having undertaken the invasion, not least to deter him from going into other countries in future.” But, in the same breath, the diplomat added that they could already sense some tensions within the alliance about the scale of support for Ukraine, and how long it can be maintained.
“It’s already clear that there isn’t that sort of very strong consensus — just at the edges, there’s a bit of fraying” of political will, the official said. It would be unlikely, the official added, that another $40 billion package from Washington would be forthcoming, regardless of which way the political winds blow in the November elections.
Shaheen and Tillis, who reestablished the Senate’s NATO Observer Group in 2018, have pushed for quick Senate approval of Finland’s and Sweden’s memberships in NATO — a process expected to wrap up in the chamber by mid-August.
While the historic expansion has given member-nations a cause for celebration, Baltic countries have urged a laser-focus on the task at hand, and have cautioned against urging Kyiv to commit to giving up territory to Russia.
Other diplomats from France and Germany have warned against humiliating Russian President Vladimir Putin and have suggested that Ukraine might have to give up territory or some autonomy in order to achieve some kind of peace with Moscow.
The counterpoint was summed up by one frontline Eastern European diplomat, who spoke with POLITICO on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues. It is “extremely important” that Europe continues to support Ukraine at at least current levels of material and economic assistance for months to come, the diplomat said.
“We differ from our Western European allies a little bit, we believe that we should not push Ukrainians for any territorial concessions if they’re not willing to do so,” the official said. “We should make sure that the Ukrainians are able to defend themselves, they’re fighting for us, for Europe. So it’s in our interest to make sure that in the long term they will be a sovereign country that will be able to defeat and deter Russia.”
Quint Forgey contributed to this report.
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