It has been my contention for years that Ukraine has had no better foreign friend over the course of the last century than the United States Congress. I saw this Congressional support firsthand during my 35-year tenure at the Helsinki Commission, a U.S. government agency composed mostly of Senators and Representatives. Ukraine was an important part of my portfolio. But even I confess to being astonished at the incredible level of Congressional support we have witnessed in the last few months.
On May 21, U.S. President Joe Biden signed a law providing for a massive, unprecedented $40 billion in emergency military, economic and humanitarian aid to Ukraine. Days earlier, the Senate had approved – in a lopsided vote of 86 to 11 – the assistance package, which had been passed by the House a week earlier by a sizable margin of 368-57.
It is the largest U.S. foreign aid package in more than two decades and by Congressional standards it happened at warp-speed with little debate. This, to put it mildly, is unusual. In fact, the aid package exceeded the president’s already substantial aid request to Congress for $33 billion. Keep in mind that this came on top of another also quickly adopted measure – the $13.7 billion Congressional supplemental aid package for Ukraine that overwhelmingly passed both chambers in March. This brought the total American investment in countering Russia’s invasion to a whopping $54 billion in just over two months. Any way you look at it, this is a huge sum.
Add to this the near unanimous passage earlier this month of another historic piece of legislation – the Ukraine Democracy Defense Lend-Lease Act, which makes it easier for the U.S to provide more military aid – as well as other pieces of important legislation pertaining to Ukraine.
And there have been other manifestations of Congressional support – hearings, press releases, statements and visits to Ukraine, including the recent travels to Kyiv of Democratic and Republican leaders, notably U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as well as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell.
All these recent actions testify that the vast majority of Senators and Representatives clearly understand that an integral, independent, secure, free and democratic Ukraine is squarely in U.S. national security interests and consistent with the values we Americans espouse and for which we stand.
President Biden summed it up well when he applauded Congress for “sending a clear bipartisan message to the world that the people of the United States stand together with the brave people of Ukraine as they defend their democracy and freedom.” And as Congress is the branch of government closest to the people, this support is a testament to the American people’s deep commitment to Ukraine.
It is no secret that Congress has become more polarized in recent years. It has become considerably harder to get things done. Thankfully, Ukraine still enjoys a level of bipartisan support not found on most issues – a relatively rare broad bipartisan consensus. I have heard more than one legislator say that Ukraine is one of the few issues on which Democrats and Republicans can and do agree.
The ongoing Congressional support must be seen in the context of the long history of interest in Ukraine. One could argue that support for Ukraine is in Congress’ DNA, as Congress has stood with freedom-loving people around the globe. Ukrainians have long offered a compelling example of a repressed people yearning to be free.
And today, more than ever, Ukrainians are a model for the entire world of what it means to defend freedom.
In the decades prior to independence, Ukraine was on Congress’ radar screen when few others, except for the Ukrainian American community, seemed to care – or even know about Ukraine. In the post-World War II years, Congress passed the 1948 Displaced Persons Act, the 1959 Captive Nations resolution and the 1960 law authorizing the Shevchenko monument in Washington, D.C., among others. In the 1970s, 1980s and early 1990s, Congressional activity included forcefully defending Ukrainian political prisoners and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, the creation of the Famine (Holodomor) Commission and resolutions for the U.S. to recognize Ukraine’s independence.
With Ukraine’s independence came, quite naturally, a marked increase in Congressional engagement of all kinds, including political support and financial assistance, especially after Russia’s initial invasion in 2014. Examples are too numerous to recount here, but for reference, you can read an updated 2020 version of my original 2018 article: “Ukraine in Congress – A century of U.S. Congressional support for Ukraine,” published on the website of the U.S.-Ukraine Business Council (USUBC).
Among the numerous factors for ongoing deep Congressional involvement have been the key role played by relevant House and Senate committees dealing with foreign relations, appropriations and national security, the Helsinki Commission and the House and Senate Ukraine caucuses.
Ukraine is no stranger to the top leadership of the two legislative chambers. The value of this should not be underestimated. Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), who holds the second highest position in the leadership as majority whip, is also co-chair of the Senate Ukraine Caucus. Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was known during the mid-1990s as “Mr. Ukraine” – the appropriations subcommittee that he chaired was generous in providing funding for Ukraine. In the House of Representatives, majority leader Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was chair of the Helsinki Commission back in the 1980s and led efforts to defend human and religious rights in Ukraine.
Can the remarkable level of Congressional support, especially of the last few months, be sustained? Some see potential clouds on the horizon. Could the number of Senators and Representatives opposing large Ukraine funding bills increase? And, if so, what impact will they have?
It’s notable that only a relatively small number voted against the $40 billion funding bill – all Republicans. Most are isolationists or fiscal conservatives. Despite the opposition to the bill from the likes of Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump, a substantial majority of Republicans in both the House and Senate – even those considered to be pro-Trump – did vote in favor. These “national security” Republicans understand that helping Ukraine defeat Russia is in the United States’ core strategic interests. This is encouraging but not determinative.
The $40 billion in funding only runs through September. But the needs are great, and a lot more military, economic and humanitarian aid will be required beyond this. Even with considerable funding from the European Union, the Group of Seven (G-7) and other international partners, the United States will need to remain extensively engaged.
I am confident that Congress will continue to strongly support Ukraine. But sometimes when it comes to funding levels involving large amounts of money, it is best not to take anything for granted. Therefore, it will be essential for Ukraine’s many American friends outside of Congress, including, of course, the Ukrainian American community, to continue and even invigorate advocacy efforts to ensure that Ukraine gets what it needs to win, recover and rebuild.