U.S. Security Assistance to Ukraine is Going to Get Complicated
As the one-year anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine approached, Senate Republican Whip John Thune warned, “every time we’ve had to do additional funding [for Ukraine], it’s gotten harder. I mean there is a constituency out there that doesn’t see the value of it.” The United States has been counted on to help fund Ukraine’s war effort and to provide material support to blunt the Russian military’s invasion since 2022. However, the future of U.S. funding may be in doubt. In the coming months, new Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy, who holds a razor-slim majority, will face a choice of whether to bring a new Ukraine funding bill to the floor for a vote. McCarthy is unlikely to bring any legislation to the floor that divides his caucus and could endanger his tenuous speakership. That unfortunately includes another supplemental appropriation for Ukraine, which a small but vocal minority of Republicans oppose. Instead of hoping that this political dynamic will magically change, both the Biden administration and Europe need to start preparing for this new reality.
Congressional gridlock in the United States will require the Biden administration to get creative in how it provides military support to Ukraine. The absence of a supplemental appropriation will not end the Biden administration’s ability to support Ukraine, but it will make it more bureaucratically challenging to keep doing so. It will also require the administration to make tough tradeoffs, something it has not yet had to do when considering how to fund the transfer of U.S. weapons to Ukraine. The administration will need to reallocate funding, use obscure authorities, and work creatively with Congress. This will also demand the Biden administration not just prioritize Ukraine but also politically assert itself to break through bureaucratic barriers and disputes. There will inevitably be issues that cause delays and place greater limitations on what the United States can provide. However, there are six potential options that the Biden administration could consider, should current funding for U.S. assistance end. These six options will also require more European support, and a creative approach to asking for and then allocating monies in the U.S. defense budget.
State of Play
Unless there is a collapse in Russian forces or a change in regime in Moscow, Ukraine will need to keep arming itself — either to maintain the current fight or to recapitalize and modernize its military to prepare for potential future Russian aggression. Not only will Ukraine continuously need to be resupplied with ammunition, but Ukraine will need to continuously recapitalize its forces with Western equipment — the Western tanks that are sent to Ukraine will experience losses and will need to be replaced. This cycle requires constant U.S. involvement and resupply.
The United States has allocated more than $48 billion in supplemental appropriations for security assistance for Ukraine since the war began in February 2022. This includes more than $20 billion as part of the $45 billion appropriation that was completed by Congress in December 2022. This funding gives the administration a good runway to continue providing weapons to Ukraine. But it is unclear how long the funding will last. At some point, likely before the fiscal year ends on Oct. 1, 2023, the administration will need more security assistance funding for Ukraine.
Congress up until now has stepped in to pass supplemental spending bills to support Ukraine. However, these requests came at a time of single-party Democrat rule in the United States. This has changed, with the Republicans taking control of the House of Representatives following the November 2022 mid-term election.
The next time the administration runs out of funding and requests more from Congress, McCarthy may choose not to bring a new Ukraine supplemental spending bill to the House floor. The legislation could divide his caucus and could prompt funding opponents to challenge his speakership, replaying his tortuous week-long election to the position in early January. This raises the potential for a potential lapse in funding for security assistance.
Funding for the Ukrainian government at this point has not demanded any tough bureaucratic tradeoffs between funding priorities. The funding has been all additive, as the administration has been extensively using its presidential drawdown authority. This authority allows the president to take equipment directly from U.S. forces or Department of Defense stocks and send it to foreign partners. This authority was normally capped at $100 million worth of equipment per year. But in response to the war in Ukraine, Congress increased the limit to $14.5 billion for this fiscal year. The supplemental appropriations thus gave the Department of Defense funds to backfill equipment sent to Ukraine in order to make it “whole” after drawing down stocks. Thus, the U.S. military could ship out older equipment and put in orders to replace it with brand-new equipment (although this will take time to contract for and build). The appropriations also gave the Defense Department’s Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative and the State Department’s Foreign Military Financing more funding, but this aid must be used to buy equipment from U.S. defense companies and is therefore often slower.
In other words, the funding thus far has not required balancing needs for Ukraine against domestic spending. It hasn’t required reducing security assistance for the Indo-Pacific. It did not require shifting funding from weapons procurement. Instead, the funding enabled the U.S. military to buy new weapons systems to replace those sent to Ukraine. The one “cost” from the Department of Defense’s perspective was that supporting Ukraine depletes equipment stockpiles, which could impact U.S. military readiness if the defense industry is unable to deliver in a timely fashion. That is a risk, but a manageable one, especially given the strategic importance of Ukraine aid.
Without a specific Ukraine appropriation, the administration will likely have to redirect or reallocate money from within the Department of Defense or State Department. This will require congressional approval. However, this does not require a full vote of the House. The leadership of congressional committees — on foreign affairs, armed services, and appropriations — all must give their approval to the potential reallocation of funding. The new Republican heads of these committees will play a critical role. Foreign Affairs Committee chair Michael McCaul favors heavily arming Ukraine, but with oversight. Kay Granger of the Appropriations Committee is a Ukraine supporter and a defense hawk. Mike Rogers, who will chair the Armed Services Committee, is also a Ukraine supporter. Should the administration get their approval (as well as that of their corresponding committees in the Senate) to redirect funds to Ukraine, the House or Senate could vote to block funding. But it is highly unlikely that opponents would have the majority needed to override, as Congress has never passed a joint resolution of disapproval to block an arms transfer advocated by the executive branch.
Options to Keep Security Aid Flowing
There are a number of ways in which the U.S. government can keep providing significant support to Ukraine without a specific appropriation. To do so, the Biden administration should begin contingency planning now.
First, the administration could keep using presidential drawdown authority to take equipment from Department of Defense stocks and send it to Ukraine. But instead of ensuring that there is funding available to replenish this equipment, the president could simply move ahead and instruct the Department of Defense to send it. The president and the military could then approach Congress and ask for additional funding to replace equipment already given to Ukraine. There are several complications with this approach. First, there is a $14.5 billion limit on how much equipment can be given away per fiscal year — a limit that the administration is fast approaching. Second, the U.S. military may be more hesitant to cede equipment to Ukraine without knowing it has the funds to replace its stockpiles. While the president can overrule these concerns, this would create significant bureaucratic opposition and resistance, particularly from the impacted military services. Furthermore, if Congress refuses to appropriate additional funds to replace equipment sent to Ukraine, the U.S. military could face shortfalls that impact the readiness of the force.
Second, the Biden administration could redirect some of the Department of Defense’s $816.7 billion defense budget toward Ukraine. The most recent defense budget was plussed up by an additional $45 billion above the administration’s request. The Department of Defense could likely find $10–20 billion to reallocate to fill gaps created by sending equipment to Ukraine. This is, after all, how European countries are aiding Ukraine, through their regular defense budgets. While most program retransfers within the department are fairly routine, finding funds of this magnitude would require hard tradeoffs. The reaction is unlikely to be as negative as when the Trump administration reprogrammed $3.8 billion from the Department of Defense to help pay for the border wall. But reprograming this much funding will certainly create bureaucratic challengers that will push back strongly against how money is being spent. Congressional appropriators and Defense Department planners no doubt have designs on this funding, such as strengthening the U.S. military’s force posture in Asia. This might lead to some further loss of support amongst China hawks in Congress. Nevertheless, as noted above, the leaders of key congressional committees are strong supporters of Ukraine and would likely support redirecting funds for military aid.
Third, the administration could reallocate funding from other U.S. security assistance programs in the State Department and the Department of Defense. This may seem the most straightforward place to find funding but there are significant limitations. Most problematic, however, is there is just not that much funding in these accounts that’s available or flexible enough to transfer to meet Ukraine’s needs. It is unlikely that key partners like Israel, which receives the largest portion of U.S. security assistance at $3.3 billion, will be content with reductions and will make that known on Capitol Hill. While there have been significant increases in security assistance funding after the invasion of Ukraine, much of this funding is planned for other partners in Europe, with the United States helping to backfill countries that have aided Ukraine, such as by providing Soviet-era tanks. The United States could reallocate some of this funding to aid Ukraine directly. However, this will leave other partners in the lurch and reduce their incentives to support Ukraine.
Fourth, the Biden administration could also simply request a significantly expanded security assistance budget for the State Department and Department of Defense. If Congress is able to fund the government (which is definitely not a given), it could substantially increase these security assistance funds. Thus, Congress would not be voting specifically for Ukraine funding but for expanding U.S. security assistance in general, which the administration would have the leeway to provide to Ukraine. However, this would require Congress to get past the fiscal brinksmanship and pass a new budget with an eye toward slipping in funding that could be devoted to Ukraine. While not impossible, this is a risky and unreliable funding source.
Fifth, the United States could create a security assistance loan for Ukraine. After the Islamic State overran Mosul in 2014, the State Department rushed to provide more security assistance to Iraq. To do this, the State Department issued a loan through its Foreign Military Financing program. This program used to be a defense lending program but switched to providing grants to foreign governments in the 1990s. Yet the State Department still maintains the authority to provide loans. A loan, however, must be paid back, which could saddle Ukraine with debt. For Iraq, the U.S. government essentially used the Foreign Military Financing program to lower the interest rate at which Iraq has been paying the loan back through national funds. This increases the cost of assistance, as interest must be paid, and would mean that portions of future funding for Ukraine in 2024 and 2025 would likely be needed to service the debt. While this is an option, it is not ideal as it would add further costs to Ukraine’s hefty reconstruction tab.
Sixth, the Biden administration could use the Excess Defense Articles program in a deliberate fashion. This might be the most elegant mechanism to support Ukraine should the presidential drawdown authority become exhausted, and it could provide the least bureaucratic or congressional friction. In many ways, this mechanism could closely resemble the way in which the administration is using its drawdown authority. However, it requires the Department of Defense and State Department to start planning now — and would demand the engagement of senior leaders to push the system to work in ways it is not used to operating in, while ensuring that requests for materiel transfers are moved on quickly.
This program is fairly straightforward. Every year the United States provides excess military equipment to key partners, everything from fighter jets to coast guard cutters to tents. The military services examine their stocks and declare equipment “excess” to requirements — this is often old or outdated systems or equipment with significant war and tear. Once the Department of Defense declares a military system to be excess, it is then up to the State Department to manage a process that divests or gives away the equipment to foreign partners. The State Department conducts a review of global requirements and priorities, selecting which partners are eligible for which items. Then foreign partners are required to come and pick up that equipment. The equipment is “as is, where is” — like buying an “as is” house. The U.S. government is not supposed to spend money fixing or transporting equipment to a foreign partner, but can use security assistance funds allocated for that country to fix and transport equipment.
The U.S. military should look at its own equipment stocks, especially equipment that could be useful for Ukraine. It could then determine to replace this equipment and declare it to be excess, likely sooner than it normally would. This would stretch the spirit of the authority, but not actually violate its letter. The administration would then use funds from the regular defense budget to procure replacements for the equipment sent to Ukraine. Thus, the U.S. military would simply be modernizing its equipment ahead of schedule, all the while providing support to Ukraine. For instance, the United States could designate older F-16s, Abrams tanks, missiles, and artillery systems as excess and then the State Department could choose Ukraine as the recipient for this equipment.
However, using the Excess Defense Article system in this innovative way would generate strong bureaucratic resistance at both the State Department and the Department of Defense. I myself had direct experience with trying to use this system to help divest of excess U.S. equipment during the drawdown in Afghanistan in 2013. That effort ultimately failed — huge quantities of equipment were eventually scrapped and a major security cooperation opportunity was missed. Much of the equipment would have ended up with European militaries and would likely have made its way to Ukraine. The major issue was not the authority itself — there were so many different bureaucratic equities involved that the process broke down, largely preventing the divestment of equipment. Ultimately, we had a good plan, but we lacked the senior level involvement needed to get the bureaucracy aligned behind it. To overcome this naturally slow process for Ukraine will require senior officials in the Biden administration to get involved in the process and react with the same sense of urgency that I experienced in Afghanistan. What I learned is that when a political directive is given, things can move faster than previously anticipated.
What This Means For Europe
Inevitably, it will become more difficult for the United States to keep supporting Ukraine at the same pace and flexibility. There will inevitably be growing bureaucratic friction within the Biden administration — whether over reallocating funding or dwindling supplies. As such, it is unlikely that the United States will be able to provide the level of support in Fiscal Year 2024 that it is currently providing. But that is a problem because the Western tanks and artillery sent today will likely need to be replaced next year — either to fight the war or to rearm Ukraine to deter the next war.
Thus, the United States and Europe need to start thinking ahead to 2024. The risk is that without funding, the unity that the Biden administration has pushed so hard for could crack. While there are clearly ways that the U.S. government can maintain its support for Ukraine, the Biden administration should also be clear with Europe that it will also need to step up its support. Europeans have been reassured by statements from White House and other officials that despite the change of control in Congress, American support will continue unabated. The administration should stop making those assurances and instead should let Europe know now that there could be future constraints on assistance.
There will be understandable doubts about whether Europe can or will fill the void. European militaries have given away huge quantities of equipment, their defense industrial base has been depleted, and what industries remain have not yet been activated to a war-time footing. Europe’s ability to assist in the short term may be limited, but the Biden administration should press European countries to start working together to make large joint procurements of items critical for Ukraine’s war effort. With European stocks depleted, Europe should focus on rearming itself and Ukraine for the longer term, as both Europe and Ukraine will need to recapitalize their militaries in the coming years. The Western systems — from tanks to infantry fighting vehicles — that Ukraine is receiving will all need to be replaced. Many of these systems will be damaged in combat or will be used beyond repair. Ukraine will need to acquire new modern Western NATO-compatible systems, including fleets of vehicles and aircraft. Europe will need to backfill itself all the while it also needs to backfill Ukraine.
This will be expensive and will require European and U.S. leaders to plan ahead. It will also further strain European industry that is struggling to meet European demands. The E.U. European Peace Facility could be a vehicle similar to the supplemental appropriations for Ukraine in the United States, which essentially incentivized the Department of Defense — or in this case European member states — to provide equipment to Ukraine, without have to make difficult tradeoffs. The European Peace Facility, however, would need a dramatic increase in funding. It has currently allocated more than $3.5 billion to backfill E.U. members sending aid to Ukraine.
The European Union could significantly increase the funding available in the European Peace Facility and use those funds to support the provision of fighter jets to Ukraine, for instance. The Estonians have recently made a €4 billion proposal for the European Union to jointly procure ammunition, using the facility as a vehicle to make joint procurements. The European Union could also do something similar to acquire new Leopard tanks. Unbelievably, the production lines for Leopard tanks have not yet ramped up because the orders have not been made and contracts have not been signed. This is indicative of how challenging the future may be for Ukraine, if there is not a contingency plan for less U.S. funding in the future.
E.U. member states should consider buying equipment for Ukraine collectively and then prioritize sending systems as they come off the production line. Rearming Ukraine should go hand-in-hand with rearming Europe.
A year into the war, neither Europe nor the United States have prepared themselves for what could be a long war. Both have been understandably consumed with the urgency of the crisis. But both need to start looking ahead and taking the steps to support Ukraine into 2024 and 2025, as inevitably Ukraine’s forces will need to be recapitalized. To do so, the Biden administration will need to continue to make Ukraine the priority. That does not mean ignoring China or neglecting Taiwan, but it does mean accepting and managing certain risks and making sure that there is funding and equipment available for Ukraine. There are clear steps that the administration can take to keep weapons and equipment flowing but that will require senior leaders to set clear priorities, break bureaucratic logjams, and get in the weeds on esoteric security assistance processes. It will also mean building trust with House Republican leaders of key committees and at times playing real hardball with Congress. Lastly, it requires the Biden administration being frank with its European partners about the inevitable challenges it will face in maintaining its support for Ukraine and urging them to step up.
Western support for Ukraine is absolutely vital to Ukraine’s survival and sends a wider message to the world about the underlying strength of the West. It is essential that the United States and Europe keep up their support for Ukraine over the long run. To do so, U.S. and European leaders need to start acting now.
Max Bergmann is director of the Stuart Center and the Europe, Russia, Eurasia program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He worked as a senior advisor in the State Department from 2011–2017, where he focused on political-military affairs.