Arm but Verify: A Blueprint for Rigorous Oversight of Future Ukraine Aid
The White House has approached Congress for the next tranche of U.S. assistance to Ukraine, proposing $24 billion in military, economic, and humanitarian aid. This request will face stiffer political headwinds than previous appeals. In the immediate aftermath of the invasion, as Ukraine’s very existence swung in the balance, elected officials in the United States generally welcomed President Joseph Biden’s requests for aid. Fortunately, Kyiv’s fierce resistance foiled Russia’s expansive war aims. However, as the fighting has ground on with no end in sight, supplemental aid to Ukraine has become increasingly politicized. Recent polling suggests Americans are skeptical of additional support while Speaker Kevin McCarthy secured the latest debt limit deal, in part, by rejecting the prospect of further supplemental spending.
This presents Congress with an opportunity to fulfill its constitutionally mandated oversight role by asking hard questions that demand clear answers. Oversight is not an end in itself. If done right, it can clarify whether current appropriations are achieving intended results, especially when weighed against competing priorities. This will help heighten transparency, increase attention to American interests, and raise the prospects of a viable endgame for the war.
With this in mind, Congress should pursue a series of measures to ensure better Ukraine aid oversight and a more robust strategic dialogue about how U.S. involvement in the war impacts American interests. A year and a half into the war, Congress should demand a dedicated Ukraine aid inspector general. Cognizant of tradeoffs, legislators should pursue policies that ensure any supplemental aid is offset under the terms of discretionary spending caps, requiring collective matching from allies with greater interests at stake, and mandating certifications that drawdowns are not undermining U.S. readiness in key theaters. To limit the existential risk of direct NATO-Russia hostilities, Congress should require topline reporting on the number and missions of U.S. personnel in Ukraine and direct the president to make clear what escalatory uses of aid America will not support. Finally, as a condition of future approvals, Congress should require the administration to provide a strategy articulating U.S. goals in Ukraine, detailing both the role of current aid and the steps being taken to facilitate an eventual end to the conflict.
Taken together, these measures can simultaneously help reassure sincere skeptics concerned with misspent aid and strategic scarcity while also enabling advocates to secure broader political support. Meanwhile, all members of the legislative branch, regardless of their stance on this issue, have a stake in ensuring continued congressional oversight on vital issues of war and peace.
American Aide Is Already Extraordinary
By any count, U.S. assistance to Ukraine has been substantial. Since 2022, the U.S. Congress has pledged $113 billion to Kyiv. This amounts to more military, financial, and humanitarian assistance than all 27 countries of the European Union have contributed. In 2021, Ukraine’s national budget was $40 billion, with $6 billion earmarked for defense. As of February 2023, the United States had provided $46.6 billion in security assistance, weapons and equipment, and grants and loans for additional materiel. By one estimate, the aggregate value of military aid sent to Kyiv would make Ukraine the greatest yearly beneficiary of U.S. security assistance of the century.
At times, this sum has been tricky to tally amid the flurry of support that has been authorized, pledged, and delivered through presidential drawdown authorities, the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, and foreign military financing. Even the Pentagon gets discombobulated. Earlier this summer, the Department of Defense issued a correction, explaining an accounting error revealed in May was itself drastically miscalculated. As it happened, aid provided to Ukraine over the past two fiscal years had been overvalued by $6.2 billion, rather than the $3 billion originally reported.
Sums of this magnitude bring inherent risks. In Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria, America learned hard lessons about the perils of aid diversion. Meanwhile, there is a long history of arms trafficking in Ukraine. Current U.S. aid flows have been difficult to account for even when traveling through NATO territory, and there have already been confirmed reports of embezzlement and outright theft.
Future aid authorizations should require the creation and appointment of special inspectors general for military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine, respectively. These offices could have the structure and powers of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction, which played an important role highlighting the limitations of Washington’s previous large-scale aid efforts. Given the volume of aid, bifurcated oversight will help Congress better understand and adjudicate support on an ongoing basis.
There are hopeful signs that Congress may create a dedicated Ukraine inspector general office in the 2024 National Defense Authorization Act, but the bill’s final outcome remains uncertain as of this writing. Where the House bill added a Ukraine inspector general, amendments to include one in the Senate failed. If this position is not included in the final defense budget bill that emerges from conference, legislators should insist the office is established as a condition of any future aid votes. The Biden administration has objected, saying that current monitoring is sufficient. But this argument falls flat against the warnings of John Sopko, the long-time Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction. Sopko cautions that current oversight efforts are “like herding cats” without an overarching office to coordinate monitoring of the various funding streams. As in Afghanistan, Sopko fears that amid massive influxes of aid, “you’re gonna see pilferage” of resources without robust oversight mechanisms.
No Budgeting Gimmicks
America’s $32 trillion national debt looms large over the Ukraine aid debate. Former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen recognized our debt as “the most significant threat to our national security” at a time when it was less than half its current size. Less well known is that our debt is as large in relation to our economy as it was during the height of our World War II spending, although we are technically at peace.
If the United States hopes to maintain a sustainable national defense for decades to come, Congress’ efforts to control spending must have teeth. Ukraine aid should not be an exception.
Further Ukraine supplementals must not become a budget gimmick to dodge spending caps, as “emergency” war spending, or overseas contingency operations funding, was misused in the post-9/11 years. President Biden’s latest aid request may accelerate this unwelcome outcome. Speaker McCarthy should honor his commitment to eschew supplementals per the terms of the recent discretionary spending agreement. Congress can follow suit and require any future Ukraine aid supplementals receive standalone votes and be offset through budgetary tradeoffs elsewhere.
The war in Ukraine is taking place in our European allies’ backyard. These nations have the greatest stake in the war’s outcome and in Ukraine’s long-term stability. Nevertheless, U.S. support outstrips Europe’s collective effort.
This lopsided relationship is nothing new. In 1959, a frustrated President Dwight Eisenhower fumed that our European allies were close to “making a sucker out of Uncle Sam” by freeriding on American taxpayers and troops for their security. Nearly every American president has raised similar concerns since.
Lawmakers should use several tools to repair this imbalance. For instance, Congress could impose matching requirements from Europe as a condition of future aid authorizations. In doing so, legislators could restrict distributing newly authorized aid above an amount our allies collectively contribute. Going further, Congress could include recission requirements for new funds within six months if the Europeans fail to step up within that timeframe. European actions should match European rhetoric, particularly given America’s current global strategic obligations.
Prioritizing U.S. Readiness
Critical American munitions stockpiles are being expended in Ukraine far faster than they can currently be produced. For instance, a March estimate found that Ukrainian forces were firing 6,000 to 7,000 155mm artillery shells a day. This rate of fire dwarfs current U.S. monthly production every few days. While plans are in place to increase U.S. production capabilities, these will take years to ramp up to a meaningful level.
In the meantime, the United States is being forced to deplete stockpiles set aside to support existing commitments across the world. According to a recent Center for Strategic and International Studies estimate, even at “surge” rates of production, it will take several years to rebuild our stockpiles of 155mm artillery shells, Javelin antitank missiles, and Stinger man-portable air defense systems. Most recently, to address 155mm ammunition shortfalls, the United States has had to resort to the export of controversial cluster munitions as a substitute.
In the face of these challenges, Congress could require public certifications from the president and secretary of defense that future drawdowns of U.S. aid to Ukraine will not compromise the readiness of U.S. forces in the Pacific. With more information, Congress can better evaluate the trade-offs between supporting Ukraine and maintaining America’s own munitions stockpiles.
Transparency on U.S. Deployments
Beyond supporting basic due diligence to prevent aid diversion, Congress needs to empower itself with a better sense of the potential risks of our involvement in Ukraine. The stakes of a wider Russia-NATO war are nuclear. It is therefore remarkable that there is no unclassified information about the topline number of U.S. forces personnel in Ukraine. This trend of reduced transparency about U.S. deployments is not new, but it is even more startling given the current risks.
As the New York Times recently reported, “Even as the Biden administration has declared it will not deploy American troops to Ukraine, some C.I.A. personnel have continued to operate in the country secretly, mostly in the capital, Kyiv, directing much of the massive amounts of intelligence the United States is sharing with Ukrainian forces.”
The furor over an errant Ukrainian missile strike in Polish territory that President Volodymyr Zelenskyy initially blamed on Russia reminds us that accidents happen and can become deadly, escalatory flashpoints. Congress is well within its rights to require additional clarification about U.S. commandos and spies operating in a war zone — particularly given the substantial precision targeting assistance American personnel already provide Ukrainian forces from elsewhere in Europe.
Without clearer accounting for U.S. forces currently in Ukraine, it is impossible for Congress to gauge the risks they face, and whether those risks are justified by their missions. To reduce the danger of inadvertent escalation, Congress should tie authorizations of new aid and disbursement of approved assistance to monthly, unclassified reporting on topline information about U.S. personnel and activities in the country.
Red Lines on Aid Uses that Endanger U.S. Security
Clearer restrictions on the intended uses of U.S. aid can guard against the risk of pro-Ukrainian actors attempting to “chain-gang” the United States and NATO into direct conflict against Russia. For example, the secretary of state has already acknowledged that a Ukrainian attempt to retake Crimea — no matter the moral justifications — would be a “red line” for Moscow that could lead to nuclear use.
Avoiding a nuclear crisis should be an overriding U.S. policy. To its credit, the administration has thus far resisted actions, such as a no-fly zone, that would have carried recklessly high escalation risks. But these efforts are hampered by statements that might muddy the waters, such as the president’s declaration last year that Vladimir Putin “cannot remain in power,” or now-Acting Deputy Secretary of State Victoria Nuland’s repeated calls for Putin to face war crimes tribunals. This rhetoric undermines attempts to signal limited, defensive U.S. aims, making it harder to control escalation risks or incentivize Moscow to eventually come to the table. It also might encourage Ukraine to use U.S. aid in a reckless manner that risks direct NATO-Russia confrontation.
Congress should refrain from approving weapons transfers that carry particularly high escalatory risks, such as terminal high altitude area defense batteries. These systems are scarce and expensive to begin with, but also feature radar capabilities networked with America’s own missile defense system. This could raise fears in Moscow that deployments in Ukraine would be used by the United States to undermine Russia’s nuclear deterrent. China voiced this concern in 2017 when the United States deployed terminal high altitude area defense batteries to South Korea. Convincing Moscow of their purely defensive, nonstrategic uses in Ukraine would be even more challenging in wartime.
In future authorizations, Congress could also stipulate that the president make clear to Kyiv that U.S. aid deliveries are not to be used in support of operations to retake Crimea. Congress could pass similar conditions to prevent U.S. equipment from being used to support strikes within Russian territory or against nonmilitary targets, and to impose freezes upon future aid if such misuses occur.
Ukraine has the right to fight for as long as it wants and to determine the objectives it will pursue, but the United States is well within its own rights to determine how its resources will be committed and which Ukrainian activities it is willing to support.
Defining the Endgame
Although most Americans believe neither side is winning the war, a majority feel Ukraine deserves to prevail against Russia’s unjustified aggression. History, however, suggests most wars end in negotiations. Present circumstances in Ukraine make this outcome even more likely. While Ukraine’s counteroffensive remains under way, U.S. officials have downplayed Kyiv’s prospects for ejecting Russian forces from all occupied territory.
Throughout the course of the conflict, the president and other senior officials have offered ambiguous — and frequently contradictory — views on their ultimate objectives. The Biden administration may see value in ambiguity, particularly given that its current position on ending the war remains “nothing about Ukraine without Ukraine.” Fundamentally, though, the administration’s first responsibility is to the American people. Without more clarity on the administration’s goals, Congress cannot make an informed decision on whether it is fulfilling this responsibility.
With this in mind, Congress should require Biden to produce a detailed Ukraine strategy before additional aid is approved. This strategy should articulate the end state American support will achieve and the cost it will incur, as well as describing how it will facilitate eventual peace negotiations. Though it was not ultimately included in the House National Defense Authorization Act, Rep. Warren Davidson’s amendment requiring such a strategy as a condition of new aid is the right approach and should be insisted upon.
Vigorous proponents of arming Ukraine would undoubtedly agree that the first duty of U.S. policymakers is to advance American interests. However, while American and Ukrainian interests often overlap, they are not identical. Both states favor punishing Russia’s unjustified invasion and securing Ukraine’s enduring sovereignty. It is not in America’s interests, however, to pursue overly expansive war aims that risk direct war with Russia or deplete munitions that might be required elsewhere. Even as Americans hope for Kyiv’s victory, Congress should ensure that their interests come first as it considers additional aid packages.
Reid Smith is vice president for foreign policy at Stand Together
Tyler Koteskey is policy director at Concerned Veterans for America
Image: U.S. Secretary of Defense