President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced the U.S. government will send $800 million in weapons to Ukraine, bringing the total over the past year to $2 billion, but pressure is growing on Capitol Hill to do even more.
According to Biden and senior U.S. officials, the new package will include 800 shoulder-fired Stinger anti-aircraft weapons, and the president said his administration is working with Ukraine to obtain an unspecified type of longer-range anti-aircraft systems. The package also includes 9,000 shoulder-fired anti-armor weapons, including Javelins; nearly 7,000 small arms, from machine guns to grenade launchers; 20 million rounds of ammunition; and 100 drones, including what Biden called “our most cutting-edge” ones. Also about to be sent: more body armor and helmets.
“These are direct transfers of equipment from our Department of Defense to the Ukrainian military to help them as they fight against this invasion,” Biden said. “We’re going to continue to do more in the days and weeks ahead.”
But as the Russian invasion of Ukraine, now 21 days old, rages on, many in Congress support Biden’s efforts but say his administration is a step behind Ukraine’s rapidly mounting wartime needs.
Of MiGs and nukes
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, in a dramatic virtual address to Congress on Wednesday, asked for NATO to enforce a no-fly zone in Ukraine and to provide his country with combat aircraft. He also requested more air defense capabilities and other weapons.
Zelenskyy’s no-fly zone proposal is a non-starter, as of now, among U.S. lawmakers from both parties. And while more U.S.-made anti-aircraft and anti-tank systems have been delivered or are on the way, Zelenskyy’s request for fighter jets remains the biggest difference between Biden, on the one hand, and most Republicans and some Democrats on the other.
Asked about those warplanes at his news conference Wednesday, Biden declined to comment.
Earlier this month, the administration rebuffed a proposal by the Polish government to send 28 of its MiG fighters to Ukraine if the U.S. government replaced those jets in Poland’s inventory with American F-16 warplanes. U.S. officials opposed to that plan have contended that providing the MiGs could risk a military clash between the United States and Russia that might even go nuclear.
Reflecting those concerns, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., told reporters Wednesday that, while Zelenskyy’s plea for help in Ukraine’s skies was compelling, Americans need to worry about their weaponry fueling a larger conflict.
“I think every one of us are deeply concerned about this spiraling into all-out war,” said Blumenauer, one of the House's most liberal members. “And this man Putin is evil, and I don't think any of us feel that it is beyond his capacity to use tactical nuclear weapons. I mean, he's completely unhinged, untethered to reality, and we're all playing with fire here.”
Bipartisan jet campaign
So far there's no consensus in Congress on trying to require the administration to ensure the Ukrainians get fighter jets. But Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. — arguably Capitol Hill’s most outspoken advocate of sending the MiGs to Ukraine — has drafted a resolution that would encourage the White House to do just that.
Although the resolution is nonbinding, if it were to get a vote, Graham said at least 60 senators would support it, and its approval would significantly increase the pressure on Biden.
Graham said the MiGs are not unlike the other weapons America has already provided for Ukraine to defend itself.
“We are not going to have a nuclear exchange over this,” Graham said. “This is a bluff by Putin. But if we let him threaten nuclear retaliation every time we get into a disagreement, he owns the world.”
Meanwhile, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said in floor remarks Wednesday that it is time to “get Ukrainian pilots more aircraft” and he accused Biden of being “self-deterred.”
A number of Democrats agree that the MiGs should be sent to Ukraine.
Blumenthal told reporters Wednesday that the MiGs should be viewed as defensive weapons and not a threat to Russia.
“I think there’s a clear distinction that avoids escalation and at the same time enables the Ukrainians to have a fair fight on the ground,” Blumenthal said.
In the House, at least four Armed Services Committee Democrats have called for facilitating the transfer of the MiGs to Ukraine: Jared Golden of Maine, Jason Crow of Colorado, Kai Kahele of Hawaii and Chrissy Houlahan of Pennsylvania.
But the majority of Democrats, it seems, have sided with Biden on this question, with most of them indicating as much only in an indirect way.
House Armed Services Chair Adam Smith, D-Wash., issued a statement of support for Zelenskyy on Wednesday and called for more military and other forms of aid “while ensuring that Russia’s war does not widen.”
White House audience
Zelenskyy, in asking for the aircraft in his speech, said: “You know that they exist and you have them, but they are on Earth, not in the Ukrainian sky.”
He said he appreciated Biden’s support so far but suggested Biden can do more.
"You are the leader of your grand nation,” he said of Biden. “I wish you to be the leader of the world. Being the leader of the world means to be the leader of peace.”
Sen. Jim Risch of Idaho, the top Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, called in a statement Wednesday for more airplanes and air defense systems for Ukraine.
“Let’s do it faster,” Risch added. “Today’s speech was clearly intended for an audience sitting in the White House, and I hope they were listening.”