Ukraine needs a long-term, stand-alone US military aid bill — opinion

The United States should streamline its military aid to Ukraine by implementing a multi-year, stand-alone assistance plan modeled after the Lend-Lease program.

After months of political gridlock, the U.S. Congress passed much-anticipated Ukraine aid bill. The bill, which includes $61 billion in military and financial aid, will provide a lifeline for Ukraine as it faces critical shortages in munitions and air power to defend against Russia. But the proposed aid package has a near-term expiry date and therefore, is not a long-term solution. Ukraine needs a multiyear, stand-alone assistance plan. Reintroducing the Lend-Lease program, which expired in September 2023, would be the best way to achieve this.

Ukraine aid and U.S. partisan politics

Over the past year, the question of military aid to Ukraine has increasingly become a bargaining chip in U.S. partisan politics. Republicans, frustrated with Biden’s policies at home, have tried to squeeze concessions from the White House by tying greater aid to Ukraine to tougher immigration controls. Biden, in his turn, has accused his Republican opponents of “playing into Putin’s hands.”

The earlier version of the aid package, which passed the Senate but failed to pass the House, met with defeat along party lines. This bill totaled $95 billion and included $60 billion in military aid to Ukraine, $14.1 billion in security assistance for Israel, $9.2 billion in humanitarian assistance to other countries, and $4.8 billion to support America’s regional partners in the Indo-Pacific region.

After months of political tug-of-war, the Republican Speaker of the House, Mike Johnson, divided the bill into several parts to be voted on separately, including a separate aid bill for Ukraine, the Ukraine Security Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2024. The amended bill maintains the proposed aid limits while repackaging some assistance as a loan. It also requires the administration to report regularly on measures taken to support Ukraine and submit to the Congress a “multi-year strategy” with specific goals and metrics and report regularly against achievement of those. Symbolically, the bill marks the first time a U.S. legislative act explicitly declares “Ukrainian victory against Russia’s invasion” as a foreign policy objective.

The approval of funding for Ukraine offers critical support as it grapples with severe ammunition shortages in the face of renewed Russian onslaughts in its east. However, the supplemental funding mechanisms are neither sufficient in terms of the amounts provided, nor are they adequate for meeting Ukraine’s long-term defense needs. They represent temporary infusions of aid rather than a more permanent, long-term solution.

Read also: Armor, artillery, air defense in forthcoming US aid package for Ukraine — report

Supplemental funding channels used by the Biden administration

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion in 2022, the United States has relied on three supplemental funding schemes for providing military aid to Ukraine. These include over $18 billion channeled through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative (USAI), $4.73 billion through the Foreign Military Financing program (FMF), and $25.9 billion in the Presidential Drawdown Authority (PDA). USAI and FMF procurement packages have mainly covered equipment, training, and advisory efforts to enhance Ukraine’s defensive capabilities, while the PDA has been mainly used to replenish the military stocks provided to Ukraine and “other affected countries.” As of March 2024, the Biden administration has provided Ukraine $44.2 billion out of the $48.7 billion committed through these supplemental funding channels.

Because of the complexity of these funding schemes, there has been lack of nuanced reporting on the overall size of U.S. military assistance to Ukraine, paving the way for allegations that the Biden administration has been funding Ukraine’s defense against Russia’s war at the expense of addressing U.S. domestic problems. But much of the $113 billion in funding went to U.S. domestic entities: 60 percent was appropriated by the Pentagon and U.S. defense industries and only 40 percent was directly allocated to Ukraine in the last two years in the form of direct financial or security assistance.

The new bill still relies on the same discretionary and trickle-down funding mechanisms. It merges economic and military assistance into one package and distributes the funds among a wide array of federal agencies, including ones that have no immediate relevance to Ukraine (e.g. $1.6 billion under “Assistance for Europe, Eurasia and Central Asia”) or its war effort (e.g.$300 million under “International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement”). It is also a short-term solution: most of the funds have an expenditure deadline of September 2025, with a significant portion expiring by December 2024.

The bitter experience of the recent months should serve as a lesson for the U.S. policymakers on the handling of Ukraine aid in the future. Instead of prioritizing military assistance within broader, short-term aid packages, decision-makers should focus on achieving a multiyear stand-alone bill free of other domestic and international encumbrances. In this regard, reintroducing the Lend-Lease Program and ensuring that it becomes the primary channel for directing U.S. military aid to Ukraine is the optimal policy direction.

Read also: $49.9 billion of U.S. aid will be spent on defense - Ukrainian PM

Reintroduce the Lend-Lease Program

The Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act, adopted in May 2022 with huge bipartisan support and heralded as flagship legislation in support of Ukraine’s defense efforts, was never activated before its expiry date of September 2023. Instead, the Biden administration relied on the above-mentioned discretionary funding channels, arguing that it preferred to provide assistance that Ukraine would not have to repay in the future. But a closer look suggests that there is more to this explanation than meets the eye. Perhaps, a more fundamental reason may have been the Biden administration’s preference for less bureaucratic oversight and more political discretion of the sort the previous supplementary funding schemes provided, often at the expense of domestic political goodwill toward Ukraine.

On 18 April, a bipartisan group of U.S. Senators proposed a bill to reintroduce Ukraine Lend-Lease Act. The bill proposes reauthorizing the lend-lease authority through the fiscal year 2026, removing the five-year cap on loaning or leasing defense articles to allies, and enabling streamlined transfer of defense articles to Ukraine by waiving the need for a Presidential declaration of emergency otherwise normally required. In the words of its authors, this new bill would “give the administration additional flexibility to get much-needed aid and resources to our partners in Ukraine who are fighting on the frontlines for freedom.”

This is a step in the right direction. The U.S. Congress should move swiftly to reintroduce the Lend-Lease program as the main funding mechanism for the U.S. military assistance to Ukraine, in addition to, and regardless of, the existing supplementary mechanisms. Establishing a definitive funding mechanism, with a focus on a long-term, no-interest, waivable loan modeled along similar agreements reached during World War II, such as the 1941 Lend Lease Act, should be an immediate policy priority. Such a multiyear legislation would give Ukraine greater autonomy in defense planning and action.

While this approach would not exclude funding through alternative channels, streamlining military aid through a clear, transparent funding mechanism with broad bipartisan support is crucial for ensuring the efficiency, effectiveness, and predictability of future U.S. assistance to Ukraine.

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