WASHINGTON ― Now that U.S. President Donald Trump’s impeachment, which centered around U.S. military aid for Ukraine, is over, key lawmakers say Congress is as gung-ho as ever to send American weapons and equipment to Ukraine to deter Russia.
Weeks after the Trump administration proposed a new $250 million tranche of U.S. military aid in its 2021 budget proposal, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy told several U.S. senators what aid he’s seeking, and key lawmakers from both sides of the aisle say that, post-impeachment, U.S. military aid to Ukraine has broad support in Congress.
“I think [the support] was there before, and it’s there afterwards. Impeachment had little to do with this,” said Rep. Bill Keating, D-Mass., chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Europe, Eurasia, Energy, and the Environment. “It’s still the bipartisan and bicameral support for the military aid to the Ukraine that was there [before impeachment].”
The impeachment inquiry and trial focused on Trump’s July phone call with Zelenskiy, Trump’s efforts to pressure Ukraine to investigate Democratic rival Joe Biden ahead of the next election, and Trump’s hold on $400 million in U.S. military aid to Ukraine. Though Trump’s defense of the hold centered on his belief Ukraine was corrupt, he has since requested $250 million in military aid for Kyiv in his 2021 budget submission to Congress.
Ukraine has not disclosed precisely what it is seeking from the United States, but Zelenskiy said during an on-stage interview at the high-level Munich Security Conference on Saturday that it’s “a different level of military support” as part of a potential $700 million package that likely includes economic aid. He also thanked Trump and the American people for their past support.
“There is no block, and nobody blocks nothing. Now we’re talking about a different level of military support. On the whole, this is a very substantive program, for the sum of $700 million U.S. dollars. This is one of the priorities,” Zelenskiy said.
Instead of being the “chessboard” where other countries compete, Zelenskiy wanted Ukraine to be a player in its own right.
“Our main objective is that our army complies with the NATO standards to be exceptionally strong, and my objective has always been a strong, independent Ukraine, which can be in any union or alliance,” he added.
The last two years saw instances of Russian harassment of Ukrainian ships near the Azov Sea and Kerch Strait, which runs between mainland Russia and Russia-annexed Crimea. That’s why Congress ― in the last defense policy bill ― expanded the categories of aid available to Ukraine to include coastal-defense cruise missiles and anti-ship missiles.
The United States provided Ukraine just weeks ago with two Island-class patrol boats formerly operated by the U.S. Coast Guard, and it reportedly plans to send three more. Ukraine is said to be seeking even more Island-class boats, as well as Mark V boats, which are operated by special operations forces and manufactured by VT Halter Marine in Gulfport, Mississippi.
According to one former U.S. official, Ukraine is also seeking ship-to-ship missiles, ship-to-shore missiles, anti-air missiles and radars capable of detecting sea- and airborne threats, as well as more Javelin anti-tank weapons.
Just ahead of Munich last Thursday, Connecticut Democrat Sen. Chris Murphy and two of Trump’s key defenders during the impeachment process ― Republican Sens. John Barasso of Wyoming and Ron Johnson of Wisconsin ― met with Zelenskiy in Kyiv to ask how they could “step up aid and support for Ukraine,” Murphy said in an account he posted on Tuesday.
Murphy and Johnson had also traveled to Ukraine last year, where they met directly with Zelenskiy while U.S. military aid was being withheld as Rudy Giuliani was pressuring the Ukrainian president to investigate Hunter Biden.
“I believe there is an opportunity to build support in Congress for a new aid package for Ukraine, and I want to make sure it reflects what Zelenskiy really needs,” Murphy said of the meeting. “He calmly ticks off a short list of investments that he cannot afford in the middle of a war with Russia that the U.S. could help with.”
Speaking with reporters afterward, Murphy stressed the bipartisan consensus in favor of Ukraine.
“We just finished a very difficult moment in American politics. The three of us are [members of] different parties. We voted differently on the matter of impeachment. But we are here together because there is no difference between us or between Republicans and Democrats in Congress in our support for Ukraine, for our support for continued funding for Ukraine to defend itself and our continued support for reform,” Murphy said.
At Munich, Zelenskiy also met with Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., and several other senators.
Speaking with reporters afterward, Inhofe voiced angry misgivings at the Democratic-led impeachment proceedings and at President Barack Obama for bucking Congress’ attempts to authorize lethal aid for Ukraine in 2015. Yet Inhofe said there was consensus now, and definitely among Republicans, in favor of military aid to Ukraine.
“It’s very supportive,” Inhofe said of the atmosphere in Congress. “In fact the last time I mentioned this at one of our [Senate Republican Conference] gatherings in Washington, there’s just no opposition. They all want to do it.”
Aside from military equipment, some in Congress hold out hope for bringing the political power of NATO to Ukraine’s aid. As a member of the alliance, the country would see Russian challenges in the eastern part of the country taper off, predicted Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio.
“I don’t think Russia ever gives up,” Portman said in Munich, referring to Russian-backed separatists fighting in the Donbass region. Once Ukraine decides to “fully align with the West,” however, “then we might see some backing off," he added.
As a NATO member, Ukraine also would be able to take advantage of training opportunities given to alliance members, Portman said.
The prospects of Kyiv actually joining the alliance during the conflict with Russia are murky, however. While Portman expects hostilities to cease as a result, critics have said the situation could escalate if Ukraine were to trigger the NATO mutual-defense clause.
Howard Altman of Military Times and Sebastian Sprenger of Defense News contributed to this report.
Joe Gould is senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry.