Ending Ukraine Aid Would Be 'Devastating' to Its War Effort, Nominee for Top Pentagon Post Warns

U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet smiles ahead of a meeting
U.S. State Department Counselor Derek Chollet smiles ahead of a meeting with Serbian Prime Minister Ana Brnabic in Belgrade, Serbia, Thursday, Jan. 12, 2023. (AP Photo/Darko Vojinovic)

Ending U.S. aid to Ukraine would be "devastating" to Ukraine's war of survival against Russia, the nominee for what's widely considered the third-most powerful position in the Pentagon warned Thursday.

"It'd be devastating, first and foremost, to Ukraine, which is putting good use to the assistance we are providing them, but also to this very, very impressive alliance that has been formed over the last 20 months," Derek Chollet told the Senate Armed Services Committee at his confirmation hearing to be under secretary of defense for policy.

Chollet's testimony on Capitol Hill comes as there appears to be no clear path in Congress to approving more aid for Ukraine. While a majority of lawmakers in both parties continue to support the funding, a growing number of Republicans are turning against the aid.

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In what could be the most consequential shift, GOP House leadership is bowing to far-right pressure to pump the brakes on the security assistance.

Chollet told the Senate committee that more than 50 countries, including donors outside of Europe, are contributing in some way to the effort in Ukraine.

"These are countries all around the world that are providing some form of military assistance," said Chollet, who currently serves as counselor at the State Department. "We are leading by example. We are doing the most thanks to Congress' strong support here, and so I think it is absolutely vital that we maintain our robust assistance to Ukraine."

The wavering in Congress comes just a week after Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy met with lawmakers in person on Capitol Hill to press his case for continued support.

The war is at a critical juncture, with U.S. officials warning there is little time left for Ukraine's counteroffensive to make progress before the winter freeze sets in and allows each side time to regroup. Ukrainian forces have so far struggled to break through Russia's heavily mined lines, though U.S. officials have commended the progress they have made.

Amid concerns that the House's fiscal 2024 Pentagon spending bill does not have the votes to pass because of conservatives' opposition to Ukraine aid, House GOP leadership is moving to strip $300 million in funding for Ukraine from the bill.

Those funds are meant for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative, a program started in 2014 after Russia illegally annexed Crimea, a region that was part of Ukraine. Unlike most of the U.S. military support for the war that has come directly from U.S. weapons stockpiles to provide Ukraine with immediate help, the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative funds contracts with U.S. weapons makers to provide the country with longer-term support.

On Wednesday night, lawmakers rejected an amendment to cut the $300 million from the Pentagon bill in a 330-104 vote. A separate amendment to bar any security assistance to Ukraine failed in a 339-93 vote.

But facing the prospect of the Pentagon bill failing on the House floor for the third time in two weeks, Republican leadership announced it would take the $300 million out of the bill despite the amendment failing.

In both cases, support for the amendments came entirely from Republicans. And even though the amendments failed, the votes demonstrated growing opposition in the GOP to Ukraine aid. A similar vote in July to cut off aid to Ukraine garnered just 70 Republican votes.

In lieu of including the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative funding in the Pentagon bill, the House is scheduled to vote Thursday night on a standalone bill with the $300 million that will likely pass.

But the fight over what is essentially a rounding error in the Pentagon's budget is an ominous sign for the billions in emergency funding for Ukraine's more immediate needs in the war.

The Senate is pressing forward with plans to pass a bill that includes $4.5 billion in military aid and $1.7 billion in economic assistance for Ukraine. That's well short of the $24 billion the White House asked for, but even that amount is expected to be dead on arrival in the House.

"If [senators] want to put focus on Ukraine and not focus on the southern border, I think their priorities are backwards," House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., told reporters Tuesday.

On Wednesday, McCarthy added that he doesn't "see the support in the House" for the Senate bill.

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on X @reporterkheel.

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