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New weapons for Ukraine: Has the U.S. Congress logjam finally broken?

It’s been a cold, brutal winter on a vital political front in Ukraine’s war of self-defense. There hasn’t been much good news lately from Washington. That may be changing. U.S. lawmakers are now predicting a vote on a multibillion-dollar weapons package that would arm Ukraine throughout the year.

 

Suddenly, Republicans are talking of a vote within days. Some conditions apply.

Red tulips in the foreground, US Capitol dome in the background

It’s been a cold, brutal winter on a vital political front in Ukraine’s war of self-defense. There hasn’t been much good news lately from Washington.

That may be changing.

U.S. lawmakers sound increasingly confident that there will be a vote on a multibillion-dollar weapons package that would arm Ukraine throughout the year.

After a months-long freeze, there are signs of a potential spring thaw.

These signs include public comments from House Speaker Mike Johnson, private discussions with his Republican colleagues, and the reaction of Democrats.

Republicans have struggled with this issue: The party’s de-facto leader, Donald Trump, opposes more aid. Any rebellion, fanned by him, could burn down Johnson’s speakership.

But comments over the long Easter holiday weekend suggest Johnson has made his choice. He’ll allow a vote in the House of Representatives.

He cautioned that he will insist on changes to the $60-billion US version already passed in the Senate, which means the Senate would have to vote again.

The rookie speaker said he’s been working to build consensus within his party and will introduce legislation after Congress returns next week from a two-week break.

Soldier in camo holds a shell in a snowy forest

Speaker: ‘We’ll be moving a product’

“We’ve been talking to all the members,” Johnson told Fox News over the weekend. “When we return after this work period, we’ll be moving a product. But it’s going to, I think, have some important innovations.”

Republicans are talking about some of the changes they’ll seek.

One is to slash humanitarian funding from the bill, and focus U.S. aid primarily on weapons. Another is to turn some of the weapons donations into a loan.

Republicans will also demand that the Biden administration reverse a recent pause on U.S. exports of liquid natural gas.

And, finally, they want to seize Russian assets. More precisely, they want to incorporate an existing bill that would sell public Russian assets held in the U.S., and use the proceeds for Ukraine’s defence.

As for the symbolism of turning Russian assets over to Ukraine, Johnson expressed delight: “That’s just pure poetry.”

Johnson has been moving in this direction for a while.

Last week, The New York Times described a closed-door meeting where the speaker was asked about his plans for Ukraine, and he delivered an impassioned monologue in which he called Russian President Vladimir Putin a madman and described support for Ukraine as vital.

Woman in red winter coat, with man in background holding Trump signs.

Another Republican lawmaker said he has a promise from Johnson.

Rep. Don Bacon, a pro-Ukraine hawk, said he also expects the bill to force Biden to supply more powerful weapons that could help Ukraine win the war, like long-range ATACMS rockets.

“I’m optimistic we’re going to get this done in two weeks,” the Nebraska Republican told NBC’s Meet The Press.

“I have a commitment from the speaker and the chairman of the [House] Foreign Affairs Committee that we’re going to put this on the floor – and get a vote.”

President Joe Biden stands speaks at a microphone, pointing a finger on his right hand, in the bottom right corner of the frame with Vice President Kamala Harris standing up and clapping in the upper left corner next to seated Speaker of the House Mike Johnson.

Democrats’ vital role: Save the bill, and Johnson

Democrats will play a vital role here.

Not only because their votes are key to passing any Ukraine bill; it’s especially true if the House, as expected, uses a fast-track process that requires a two-thirds majority vote.

But they might also have to save Johnson’s job.

Republicans have already turfed one leader this year, Kevin McCarthy. Johnson would risk a backlash from his pro-Trump, anti-Ukraine base by holding a vote on the aid package.

In fact, far-right Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene has already introduced a motion to oust Johnson, and suggested Ukraine might be what pushes her to call it to a vote.

She reacted angrily to Johnson’s comments over the weekend, posting angrily multiple times on social media and calling it a cruel joke.

But this time Democrats might do something they wouldn’t do for McCarthy: Step in to save the Republican speaker.

Already a handful have raised their hands publicly and suggested they would vote with Johnson’s Republican allies to keep him in the speakership.

According to the Democrats’ leader in the chamber, Ukraine is the deciding issue, the one that will determine whether his party protects the speaker.

Yet another Democrat over the weekend indicated that he’d be willing to protect Johnson if that’s what his leader, Hakeem Jeffries, asks him to do.

“If he were to call me and say, ‘Look, I would like to have your vote in support of Johnson,’ he has got it,” James Clyburn told Meet The Press.

At issue is whether Washington renews a program in which it transferred U.S. weapons stockpiles to Ukraine, and replaced those weapons with funds approved by Congress.

Short on soldiers, Ukraine considers lowering conscription age

Up against Russia’s advantages in weapons and manpower, Ukrainian draft officers patrol the streets for fighting-age men while the government is considering lowering the age of conscription from 27 to 25.

The outlook on the battlefield

The U.S. is, by far, the largest foreign backer of Ukraine’s war effort; other countries have handled a larger share of non-military donations.

The existing funds expired late last year, leaving Ukraine with a precariously low supply of artillery shells.

One military-watcher said Ukraine received about three months’ worth of 155-millimetre artillery shells from the Biden administration‘s recent announcement that it would use other cost savings to send new weapons there.

Otherwise, he said, Ukraine’s defensive lines risk crumbling. The question now is whether Ukraine has the weapons it needs to protect those lines throughout 2024.

“Ukraine’s motto for 2024 is to survive,” said Matthew Schmidt, a professor of national security at the University of New Haven and former professor at the Army War College.

“Russia’s motto in 2024 is to bring the war to a culmination, bring it to negotiations on their terms.”

Kyiv residents seek shelter from Russian missile attack

Russia targeted Ukraine’s capital early Thursday, forcing people to seek shelter as Ukraine tried to intercept the inbound missiles.

Both parties obviously want the most favourable battlefield conditions in negotiating an end to the war. In either case, Schmidt foresees a potential Cold War scenario playing out.

Russia, he said, might claim bits of Ukraine; Ukraine, he said, would never formally concede those territories but would agree to a pause in fighting.

He then envisions an East Berlin-West Berlin scenario taking hold, in which Ukraine forges ties with the West, perhaps with European Union membership, and seeks to provide a better quality of life to citizens than what’s enjoyed in Russian-controlled territories.

A generation from now, he imagines the pattern of German reunification repeating itself in Eastern Ukraine.

“Their kids might say, ‘Hey, we want to be part of the EU,'” Schmidt said.

“I think Ukraine wins in the end. It’s a question of, ‘Do they win in two years or in 20 years?'”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Alexander Panetta is a Washington-based correspondent for CBC News who has covered American politics and Canada-U.S. issues since 2013. He previously worked in Ottawa, Quebec City and internationally, reporting on politics, conflict, disaster and the Montreal Expos.

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Credit belongs to : www.cbc.ca

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