House Republicans are endangering Ukraine, Europe and America

In mid-January, with doubts about congressional Republicans’ support for Kyiv rising, Ukrainian Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba told ABC News, “Even if we run out of weapons, we will fight with shovels.” His words recalled the early days of the 2022 Russian invasion, when ordinary Ukrainians prepared Molotov cocktails to meet the foe.  

Ukrainians see this war as existential. If they lose, their Ukraine is gone. But shovels and Molotov cocktails would not hold the Russian army for long. If Ukraine falls because Republicans block U.S. assistance, they will bear a grotesque responsibility — and will have put the United States and American soldiers in greater jeopardy.

Vladimir Putin’s imperialist desire to regain what he has called “historical” Russian land largely motivates the war. Rejecting a Ukrainian peace plan, he said, “This is an attempt to encourage us to abandon the conquests [emphasis added] we have made over the past one-and-a-half years.”

Former President Dmitry Medvedev more bluntly stated that Ukraine, supposedly located on historical Russian territory, should not exist. He opined that Ukrainians would “understand that life in one large common state [with Russia], even one that they don’t much like at the moment, is better than death — their death and the deaths of their loved ones. And the sooner the Ukrainians wrap their heads around this, the better.”

Ukraine has never posed a military threat to Russia. Ukrainians did not want war, but they have shown a courageous determination to defend their land, their freedom and their aspiration to become a normal European state. They have seen in Bucha and other towns what Russian occupation means: summary executions, torture, rapes and children deported to Russia.

For the past two years, the Ukrainians have successfully resisted, sustained by a flow of weapons and other aid from the United States, Europe and elsewhere. The Biden administration has at times been slow to provide the needed arms, but it has sought since last fall an appropriation of $60 billion to continue that flow in 2024.

Unfortunately, congressional Republicans have blocked action, and the last available funding was expended in December. Speaker Mike Johnson can fix this. Given an “F” for his previous record by the advocacy group Republicans for Ukraine, Johnson’s views seemed to change after he became Speaker. He said in October that Ukraine “has to prevail” and that he and House Republicans favored sending more assistance.

Well, maybe not. Johnson subsequently tied Ukraine assistance to changes in border policy that he has to know were unacceptable to the Senate and the White House. He has consulted with Donald Trump, who reportedly counseled him not to accept a deal on the border and Ukraine being worked out in the Senate. Trump seems to want to scotch any border deal so that he can use the issue for his campaign.

European countries have said they will keep supporting Ukraine, but they cannot make up the capacity that would be lost if American assistance ends. Meanwhile, Putin has put the Russian economy on a war footing, upping military production and importing missiles and arms from North Korea and Iran. Absent U.S. help, Ukraine will hardly be able to match what the Russian army puts in the field.

This is not just about Ukraine — it is also about vital U.S. interests. For more than 70 years, American presidents — Republicans and Democrats alike — have understood that a stable and secure Europe is a vital American interest. If Russia prevails, Europe will be less stable, less secure and more demanding of American attention.

A Russian victory would place other European countries at risk, including Moldova and perhaps even the Baltic states — all once part of the Russian Empire and thus, in Putin’s view, historical Russian lands. Would a Kremlin emboldened by victory over Ukraine be tempted to attack a Baltic state, in spite of its membership in NATO? Many analysts would say no, but we underestimate Putin at our peril. Five years ago, most analysts would have put the odds of an all-out Russian assault on Ukraine at zero.

If the Kremlin decides to go after, say, eastern Estonia, Washington will have to send American troops as well as weapons. Ukraine now asks only weapons and ammunition, not soldiers. The value of stopping Russia in Ukraine should seem self-evident.

Speaker Johnson and his Republican allies should ask how they will feel if they block assistance for Kyiv and thus Ukraine goes down to defeat with its people heroically, but futilely, swinging shovels and tossing Molotov cocktails. And how will they feel about the costs to defend the U.S. and its allies against an emboldened Kremlin intent on further conquest? After asking those questions, they should do the right thing and approve assistance for Ukraine.

Steven Pifer is a former U.S. ambassador to Ukraine.

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