To save Ukraine, Democrats must compromise on immigration

Earlier this week, American officials, led by Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin, met with representatives of the more than 50 nations that are supporting Ukraine. The participants created subgroups that would focus on drones and armor. Austin told the assembled officials that “Putin hopes that missiles and drones will demoralize the Ukrainian people, and break the fighting spirit of the Ukrainian military. … If we lose our nerve, if we flinch, if we fail to deter other would-be aggressors, we will only invite even more bloodshed and chaos.”

Yet it is the United States that appears to be losing its nerve and flinching. In late December, the administration announced a $250 million package of arms and equipment under previously approved Presidential Drawdown Authority. While a recalculation of the value of materiel sent to Ukraine afforded an additional $6.1 billion to be made available to Kyiv, the “drawdown” cupboard has now run dry. There has been no additional funding this month.

The key to additional support for Ukraine is the administration’s supplemental request for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan. Yet its fate remains at best uncertain. The latest concurrent resolution that Congress passed earlier this month sets March 8 as the deadline for passing Fiscal Year 2024 appropriations bills for both the Defense and State Departments, among others. These are the agencies through which most assistance for Ukraine is funded. Ukraine’s strongest supporters on Capitol Hill would prefer either that the supplemental passes alongside the FY24 appropriations bills or that funding for Kyiv is subsumed into the defense appropriation. Neither outcome is assured.

Right-wing House Republicans, egged on by former President Donald Trump, oppose a supplemental on two major counts. They argue that instead of pouring additional billions of dollars into Ukraine, these funds should be spent at home — or, better yet, not spent at all. In addition, opponents of the request reject its provisions on border control, which they consider far too feeble.

Indeed, even as Senate and House negotiators are attempting to reach a compromise on the border control provisions of the supplemental, Senate conservatives are echoing the objections of their House counterparts. In particular, Senate opponents have voiced concerns about a provision in the current negotiations between Senate Democrats and Republicans that reportedly would grant the president authority to deport migrants without their being processed for asylum only after 5,000 have entered the U.S. each day.

Any agreement that the Senate reaches and sends to the House is likely to fail, however. Speaker Mike Johnson reportedly would support additional funding for Ukraine, though perhaps at a lower sum than the more than $61 billion in the administration’s supplemental request. Nevertheless, he is unlikely to accept any Senate proposal that does not meet most of the tough standards on immigration that right-wing House members demand. Indeed, there is pressure in the House GOP caucus to reject any legislation on immigration whatsoever, since passage would no doubt let the Biden administration declare victory on one of the most controversial issues of the election year.

All of the foregoing bodes ill for Ukraine’s prospects in its ongoing efforts to repel Russia’s invaders. The Ukrainian army desperately needs materiel of all types given its heavy personnel losses, which, unlike its Russian counterpart, it is finding exceedingly difficult to replace. Moreover, the heavy toll in death and casualties that Russian forces are inflicting on Ukraine’s military is continuing to sap morale among both troops and civilians.

Despite Secretary Austin’s urgings, Ukraine’s friends in Europe and elsewhere are unlikely to take up the slack resulting from an American failure to provide additional assistance to Kyiv. It is not for want of support for Ukraine that they will be unable to do so. Several NATO countries have ambitious programs to ramp up their defense spending in response to Moscow’s aggression, but these efforts will take several years to materialize. In the meantime, states that have provided considerable assistance to Ukraine have run down their own stocks to the point that they are concerned about their ability to defend their own territory in the event of new Russian adventurism.

Many experts, among them Lloyd Austin himself, have pointed out that were America to abandon its assistance to Ukraine, its promises of support for Taiwan would lose all credibility. That observation applies equally to America’s commitment to its European allies and partners. They too will conclude — indeed are already worrying — that regardless of who wins the presidential election, America’s growing inclination to turn inward will only intensify.

It is too late to bemoan the administration’s decision to include any immigration provisions in its supplemental request. Any hope for its passage will clearly require concessions to the Republicans — especially those in the House— on border control that would enable them to declare victory as loudly as the Democrats are certain to do. Any compromise Senate package must therefore make room for additional concessions to the House, enabling Speaker Johnson to bring the majority of his caucus along to support the supplemental.

Should Johnson be unable to do so, it will not only be Ukraine that will be left to Russia’s tender mercies. Instead, the entire international system, built on the foundation that Washington laid nearly three-quarters of a century ago, could tragically come apart, to the benefit of America’s most determined enemies.

Dov S. Zakheim is a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and vice chairman of the board for the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He was undersecretary of Defense (comptroller) and chief financial officer for the Department of Defense from 2001 to 2004 and a deputy undersecretary of Defense from 1985 to 1987.

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