Defense Secretary Austin visits Ukraine to reassure of continuing U.S. support


A woman sings the national anthem of Ukraine during a demonstration in central Kyiv, Ukraine, Saturday, Nov. 18, 2023. People gathered to protest against corruption and demand the reallocation of public funds to the Armed Forces. (AP Photo/Alex Babenko)

(Alex Babenko / Associated Press)

Defense Secretary Austin visits Ukraine to reassure of continuing U.S. support

Ukraine

Nov. 20, 2023

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III made an unannounced visit to Kyiv on Monday in a high-profile push to keep money and weapons flowing to Ukraine even as U.S. and international resources are stretched by the new global risks raised by the Israel-Hamas war.

Austin, who traveled to Kyiv by train from Poland, met with President Volodymyr Zelensky and was scheduled to meet with Defense Minister Rustem Umerov and Chief of Staff Gen. Valerii Zaluzhnyi.

In Kyiv, Austin said Ukraine’s effort to defeat Russia’s invasion matters to the rest of the world” and that U.S. support would continue for the long haul.”

Zelensky said Austin’s visit was a very important signal for Ukraine.

We count on your support, Zelensky said, thanking Congress as well as the American people for their backing.

This is Austins second trip to Kyiv, but hes making it under far different circumstances. His first visit occurred in April 2022, just two months after the start of the war. At the time, Ukraine was riding a wave of global outrage at Moscows invasion, and Austin launched an international effort that now sees 50 countries meet monthly to coordinate weapons, training and other support that can be sent to Kyiv.

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But the conflict in Gaza could pull attention and resources from the Ukraine fight. The U.S. has worked feverishly since the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas on Israel, and the ensuing weeks of devastating Israeli bombardment of Gaza, to keep that conflict from expanding into a regional war.

The U.S. has already committed two carrier strike groups, scores of fighter jets and thousands of U.S. personnel to the Middle East, and has had to shift its force posture and conduct airstrikes against Iranian-backed militant groups that are now hitting U.S. bases in Iraq and Syria on a regular basis.

To date, Ukraine has received more than $44 billion from the U.S. and more than $35 billion from other allies in weapons, including millions of bullets, air-defense systems, advanced European and U.S. battle tanks, and pledges of F-16 fighter jets.

But Ukraine still needs more, and after almost 20 months of arms shipments to Ukraine, cracks are beginning to show among its allies. Some European countries such as Poland have scaled back support, noting their need to maintain adequate fighting ability to defend themselves.

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Ukrainian officials have strongly pushed back on suggestions that they are in a stalemate with Russia after a long-awaited counteroffensive over the summer did not radically change the battle lines on the ground. In a visit to Washington last week, Andriy Yermak, head of Zelensky’s office, provided no details but confirmed that Ukrainian forces had finally pushed through to the east bank of the Dnipro River, which has essentially served as the immovable front line between Ukrainian and Russian forces for months.

However, as winter sets in, it will become more difficult for either side to make large gains because of ground conditions. That could further work against Ukraine if U.S. lawmakers perceive that theres time to wait before more funds are needed. A senior defense official traveling with Austin told reporters on the trip that the U.S. expects Russia to go after Ukraine’s infrastructure, like the power grid, again this winter, making air defenses critical.

Fred Kagan, a senior resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, said it would be a mistake to think there is time to wait.

If we stop providing aid to Ukraine, its not that the stalemate continues. The aid is actually essential to preventing the Russians from beginning to maneuver again in ways that can allow them to defeat Ukraine, Kagan said. So the cost of cutting off aid is that Russia wins and Ukraine loses and NATO loses.

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Further complicating the support is that the Pentagon has only a dwindling amount of money left in this years budget to keep sending weapons to Ukraine, and Congress is months late on getting a new budget passed and has not taken up a supplemental spending package that would include Ukraine aid.

Since the war began in February 2022, the U.S. has provided more than $44.2 billion in weapons to Ukraine, but the funding is nearly gone. The Pentagon can send about $5 billion more in weapons and equipment from its own stocks. But it has only about $1 billion in funding to replace those stocks. As a result, recent announcements of weapons support have been of much smaller dollar amounts than in months past.

You have seen smaller packages because we need to [parcel] parse these out, Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh said Thursday. Because we dont know when Congress is going to pass our supplemental package.

Officials have been urging Congress to provide additional money, but a growing number of Senate Republicans have opposed additional Ukraine aid without securing support for other unrelated provisions, such as stricter immigration laws and additional funding for border control. A stopgap spending bill passed last week to avoid a government shutdown during the holidays did not include any money for Ukraine.

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