As the Kremlin reveled in the failure of Congress to approve new military assistance for Ukraine and President Biden railed against Republican lawmakers for “kneecapping” an ally in their hour of need, Ukrainian soldiers, political leaders and Kyiv’s allies were all left asking the same question on Thursday: What happens if the United States stops providing military assistance?
Officials in President Volodymyr Zelensky’s government are still hopeful Congress will ultimately pass an assistance package — and have been cautious about saying anything that could ensnare them in America’s bitter domestic political battles. At the same time, they are racing to bolster their nation’s own military capabilities and working to deepen ties with other allies who remain steadfast in their support.
All the while they express resolve to keep fighting an occupying army.
“Regardless of who, where and how voted in any country in the world, we will not stop defending our country — we will not give up a single piece of our land,” Oleksiy Danilov, the head of the Ukrainian National Security and Defense Council, said in a statement issued Thursday morning, hours after Republicans in the United States Senate blocked a measure to provide tens of billions of dollars more in aid to Ukraine.
“We will focus, draw conclusions, reload our weapons and continue to destroy the Russian monster,” he added.
The goal now, he said, was to make the nation’s military so strong that Ukrainians would not be “hostages to a changing political situation.”
Ukraine is taking pains to underscore the urgency of the situation, and the effect an erosion of funding would have on the battlefield.
“It’s hell,” Andriy Babichev, a Ukrainian soldier with the 93rd Brigade, said in an appearance on national television. He is fighting to thwart relentless Russian assaults outside Bakhmut in Ukraine’s east. “It hasn’t been like this for a long time. Artillery cannonade from both sides is heard around the clock. The temperature is below zero. The mud is frozen.”
Ukrainian soldiers were killing Russians by the dozens, he said, but more kept coming. “I don’t know how many shells are needed to destroy them all.”
The White House has said that the money currently dedicated to supporting Ukraine will run out by the end of the year. Pentagon officials have said that the administration will be able to continue assisting Ukraine militarily through the winter, by doling out the remaining $4.8 billion of authority to send Kyiv weapons from U.S. stockpiles.
No matter which scenario emerges, the Senate vote served as a jolting reminder of just how deeply Ukraine’s fate is tied to the assistance of allies — none more so than the United States. Mr. Biden has repeatedly vowed to back Ukraine “for as long as it takes.”
The Kremlin was quick to seize on the vote in Congress as proof of a lack of Western resolve.
Pledges of unequivocal support are “framed by difficult attempts at securing financing,” said Dmitry Peskov, the Kremlin spokesman, after the Senate vote failed. “Clearly, there are problems with this. Clearly, the United States now is experiencing internal contradictions during discussions on whether it would be advisable to continue to thoughtlessly burn tens of billions of dollars in the furnace of the Ukrainian war.”
It was time, he said, for the West to abandon Ukraine so Russia “can achieve our set goals.”
Those publicly stated goals have been deliberately opaque and shifted throughout the war, but the Kremlin has never renounced its maximalist goal of subjugating all of Ukraine.
So Ukrainians are once again trying to make the case to the world that if Russia stops fighting, the war will end. If Ukraine stops fighting, they say, there is no more Ukraine.
Given that there is still some money in the pipeline for Ukraine and that it takes time for policy decisions to be felt on the battlefield, there was no sense that Kyiv’s military situation would suddenly and drastically deteriorate during the winter fighting season.
Ukraine has shifted to a largely defensive posture along most of the front, but simply holding the line is a difficult and bloody fight that requires vast expenditures of ammunition.
With U.S. support in doubt, there is some hope in Kyiv that other allies could help fill the gap.
Norway and Britain announced on Tuesday that they would launch a coalition to support for Ukraine. Japan this week announced an additional $1 billion in assistance to Ukraine as well as their readiness to further increase the total to $4.5 billion.
A flurry of European leaders have visited Kyiv in recent weeks to pledge billions of dollars in military assistance. Germany, which was once slow to provide aid to Ukraine, announced last month that it planned to double its support to $8.5 billion in 2024.
“Europe is increasing its support,” Josep Borrell Fontelles, the European Union’s top diplomat, said at a meeting of E.U. officials in October. “But the U.S. is something irreplaceable for the support of Ukraine.”
European Union member countries are also locked in negotiations to approve a $54 billion aid package for Ukraine that would be distributed over four years. President Viktor Orban of Hungary, who has been Moscow’s most reliable ally in the bloc, has threatened to block the package.
Overall support for Ukraine slowed sharply in recent months, according to the Kiel Institute for the World Economy, which tracks aid pledges to Ukraine. New military, financial and humanitarian commitments made by Ukraine’s allies between August and October this year totaled $2.3 billion — an almost 90 percent drop compared with the same period in 2022, according to the institute.
“Our figures confirm the impression of a more hesitant donor attitude in recent months,” Christoph Trebesch, the head of the team tracking aid at the institute, said in a statement. “Given the uncertainty over further U.S. aid, Ukraine can only hope for the E.U. to finally pass its long-announced 50 billion euros support package. A further delay would clearly strengthen Putin’s position.”
Constant Méheut contributed reporting from Paris and Nataliia Novosolova from Kyiv, Ukraine.