A bipartisan chorus on the Senate Armed Services Committee took the Defense Department’s most senior leaders to task Thursday for what some senators described as a half-hearted approach to helping Ukraine win its war against Russia.
At a hearing on the fiscal 2023 budget, the senators — mostly but not entirely Republicans — applauded the U.S. military’s aid to Ukraine in the six weeks since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began but insisted the Pentagon could do more to turn back the invaders.
The senators questioned why the administration has not yet spent two-thirds of the money Congress appropriated last month for Ukraine in the fiscal 2022 omnibus appropriations act. And they asked why the Defense Department was providing some weapons but not others. The senators also said they wanted the department to move more quickly in getting the anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles and other systems it is sending to the Ukrainians.
Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut was the most vocal of several Democrats on the panel urging the Pentagon to step up its support for Ukraine’s war effort.
“It seems to me that often our strategy seems somewhat schizophrenic,” Blumenthal said. “We want the Ukrainians to defeat the Russians, but we're afraid that pushing Putin into defeat may provoke escalation. It seems to me that we need to address those fears and realistically provide the Ukrainians what they need to win.”
Tom Cotton of Arkansas led the GOP charge on this issue. He elicited from Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III the admission that, up until now, the Pentagon has not clearly stated that the U.S. military could provide battlefield information to Ukraine’s forces that could help them fight Russian proxies in the separatist-controlled eastern Donbas region of Ukraine.
Austin said that the department was now clarifying internal guidance to allow intelligence-sharing aimed at helping Ukraine attack the Russian-backed forces there.
“Certainly the current guidance was not clear in that regard,” Austin said.
“This is part of what you've heard from both parties in this committee,” Cotton told Austin and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley. “As much as we have done, we're still engaged in too many half measures. There's still too much hesitancy and tentativeness in our posture towards this war.”
Austin and Milley recounted the administration’s efforts to date in backing Ukraine, including allocating $2 billion — and counting — for sending U.S. weapons, on top of coordinating a campaign of economic sanctions against the Russian government and its allies.
Austin and Milley also said they are pushing as hard as they can to do more.
“We are flowing resources into Ukraine faster than most people would have believed conceivable,” Austin said. “We are providing those capabilities proven to be effective in this fight.”
But senators want to see more done, sooner.
Mississippi Republican Roger Wicker asked the witnesses pointedly why the administration has spent just $900 million of $3 billion provided in the recent omnibus for military aid to Ukraine.
“Does the administration not want to send it yet?” Wicker asked. “Is it not available yet? Are there throughput problems at the Pentagon? And how do we fix these problems to get our friends in Ukraine the equipment, the weaponry they need to defeat the Russians?”
In another sign of bipartisan impetus to do more to arm Ukraine, the Senate passed by voice vote on Wednesday a bill by Democrats Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland and Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire and Republicans Wicker and John Cornyn of Texas that would streamline the process for lending and leasing weapons to Ukraine.
Blumenthal asked why the Pentagon cannot provide Ukraine with naval assets or send American A-10 attack planes that the Pentagon is in the process of retiring. He also wondered aloud whether America cannot train Ukrainian troops so they can operate more U.S.-made equipment. He wondered why the administration has not invoked Defense Production Act authorities to accelerate weapons procurements.
Austin responded that the training would take Ukrainian fighters out of the “knife fight” they are in. And he expressed doubt that A-10s could survive attacks in Ukraine. He reiterated, too, that the administration is pushing U.S. defense contractors as hard as possible to turn out more weapons for Ukraine and to backfill U.S. stocks that the Pentagon has drawn down to support the war.
Shaheen applauded the administration for requesting $4.2 billion for the so-called European Deterrence Initiative, a program to bolster U.S. and allied forces along NATO's eastern flank. But she asked whether that level of spending should be increased to account for events in Ukraine and a potential Russian threat to other countries in eastern Europe.
Wicker said outright that Congress would have to appropriate more money for the European Deterrence Initiative going forward.
President Joe Biden submitted his fiscal 2023 budget request on March 28, just over a month after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, but officials say the administration finalized it before the invasion and that it does not account for new spending that may be required in response — including what Austin suggested Thursday is a likely long-term bolstering of U.S. forces in Europe.
Fear of Putin?
Milley predicted the remainder of the war is going to be “a long slog.”
“This is not an easy fight that they're involved in,” he said of the Ukrainian people.
They have “managed to defeat the Russian onslaught onto Kyiv,” he added, referencing the Ukrainian capital. “But there is a significant battle yet ahead down in the southeast, down around the Donbas region, where the Russians intend to mass forces and continue their assault. So I think it's an open question right now how this ends.”
Several senators said they wanted to see the administration show it is willing to go to greater lengths to ensure that Ukraine wins the war.
Cotton was adamant on this point.
“Why will you not use the words ‘win’ or ‘victory’ in reference to Ukraine?” Cotton asked.
Cotton also renewed his criticism of the administration for putting off last month a previously planned test of a Minuteman nuclear ballistic missile, amid tensions with Russia.
The message that sends, Cotton said, is that America is “nervous” about what Russian President Vladimir Putin is going to do, “as opposed to trying to make him nervous about what Ukraine and America and NATO is going to do next.”
To that, Austin referenced boosting U.S. military forces in Europe and helping arm Ukraine.
“None of those actions indicate that we're afraid of Mr. Putin,” Austin said.