The passage of a bill yesterday in the House of Representatives approving aid (which will soon be supported by the Senate and signed into law by President Biden) means that soon (and I mean very soon) large amounts of military support will start flowing into Ukraine to help stabilize the situation. [But is all as good as it seems?]

The House approves aid for Ukraine: how it happened.

One thing that has happened in the last two years and two months is that because of the Russian full-scale invasion of Ukraine and the fact that I have played a small but not entirely insignificant role commenting on the war, I’ve come into contact with people who play a political role in both parties and established some surprising connections.

For the Republicans this has come from what might be called the traditional or Reagan-wings of the party (they are a little different historically, the Reagan wing being more ideological). What they all have in common is mostly a despair about the state of the GOP. This despair comes from the state of GOP Ukraine policy in particular but really involves almost everything the party has come to stand for. Even though they often will not break publicly with Trump (whom they loathe) they hate what he has done to the party.

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I’ve been in contact with them quite regularly over the last few months, as aid for Ukraine was frozen in the House. The general consensus I was getting from these Republicans was that Ukraine aid getting passed was, at best, a 50-50 proposition. They are all completely aware of Trump’s dominance in the party and because of that believed in the end it would be extremely difficult for Speaker Johnson to bring a bill to the floor—even if it was going to pass.

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The Biden Administration’s Chicken Kiev Complex

The Cold War instilled in many American politicians a craven stance toward Moscow’s belligerence. Experience shows that fear couched by pragmatism is a losing approach.

One of them, who really knows what is happening in the party, remained very pessimistic until last week, when they changed their view of what would happen quite dramatically. They told me, in a line which I quoted in twitter,

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The dam just broke which is great. We are in a 1938 era – we’ve just swapped Russia/China for Germany/Japan. We have to win this fight.

This was strong confirmation that not only was Johnson going to bring the aid to the floor, but a large number of Republicans would support it – and it turned out to be right. Since then, I’ve been asking around to see what happened – and this is what I’ve heard from the Republicans who know.

The key figure in the switch was Speaker Johnson. Until almost a week ago he remained uncertain about what to do and was still planning on delaying a vote. If Johnson did continue to delay, getting the aid passed would have been very difficult (every day closer to the November election is a day which is more difficult for Republicans to oppose Trump). However, he decided for a range of reasons (I’m not going to guess which ones mattered more or less) to have the vote in the end. The reasons for the change were:

He was spooked by the intelligence reports about what the loss of US aid was doing to Ukrainian resistance and how the Ukrainian army, outgunned and out-supplied, was in bad shape. So, he personally became convinced of the need to get aid to Ukraine.

The connection between Russia-China-North Korea-Iran was now assumed to be stronger and a threat to the US. The growth of Chinese support (materially) for Russia, and Iranian policy made it much easier to believe that the US needed to stand up to all of them – and not separate Russia from the rest for instance.

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Johnson was also aware that if he did not act, a large number of pro-Ukrainian Republicans in the House who had not yet signed a discharge petition would go ahead and do so. This would have led to him losing control of the floor.

View from the House floor after passing the Ukraine aid bill. Slava Ukraini! Alexander S. Vindman @AVindman

Politically, Johnson was aware that abandoning Ukraine was damaging to the Republicans winning election in 2024 – it was an attempt to reach out to the Haley wing of the Republican Party (this also is a huge motivator for Trump).

So, Johnson decided that he would allow a vote, and he went to visit Trump to get the latter on board. That worked – within certain confines. Trump agreed not to oppose Johnson – though he was not happy about it. Trump still very much wants to cut a deal that helps Putin and forces Ukraine to hand over lots of territory. However, at the present Trump was willing to pivot politically to try and attract Haley Republicans, who he understands will be crucial if he is going to win the election.

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So, Johnson left Trump and moved forward with the vote. Trump, however, was still uncomfortable with any deal that really helped Ukraine – and his one public comment on the subject was (to put it simply) weird as hell.

I think you can tell from this that Trump really does not want US aid going to Ukraine. He simply lies about US providing much more aid to Ukraine than Europe actually (European aid is now about twice US aid). He adds a line about how Ukrainian survival is important to the US (though what Trump probably means by this is after he forces Ukraine to surrender a lot of its land. However, he did not oppose the vote, and that was crucial in allowing Johnson to proceed.

This then brings us to what happened a few hours ago on the floor, when the vote(s) actually happened. Overall, there was a very strong majority for the bill – and it passed 310-112.

However, the majority of the Republicans in the end still voted against aiding Ukraine. That is in itself quite revealing.

What it shows that is the Republicans in the House really do not believe that Trump supports this bill and, always keen to curry favor with him, opposed the aid in the end. Indeed, we have a clear idea, because of the votes on the amendments preceding this, of how many Republicans opposed Ukraine aid because of Trump-fear.

Three votes before this, there was a vote on a proposed amendment by Marjorie Taylor Greene (of course). That amendment was pure-Putin. It took a bill on aiding Ukraine and removed all Ukraine aid. It made the bill and anti-bill. If you voted for the Greene amendment – you were basically calling for a Russian victory. When the dust settled, 71 Republicans in the House went along with her (the final vote was 71 in favor of her amendment and 351 opposed).

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Greene’s amendment helped reveal the full Pro-Putin wing of the GOP in the House.

 

Greene’s amendment helped reveal the full Pro-Putin wing of the GOP in the House

However, another 41 Republicans who did not support Greene later opposed the final bill. These latter people probably do support aid for Ukraine but took the opportunity to signal to Trump and MAGA that they were on their side – once they knew aid was going to be approved.

It’s an ominous sign for what the Republican Party would do if Trump were to win in November. Even if a majority do want to support Ukraine, they were unwilling to do so in a straight vote. Europe must learn this lesson if it hasn’t yet.

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So, the aid passed in the end with the practically unanimous support of the Democrats (Minority Leader Jeffries was excellent throughout the process) and a large minority of Republicans. It’s a rare moment of bipartisan cooperation in our times of mentally deranged partisan division. However, don’t fool yourselves into believing it will last if Trump wins. In that case, it will be more like a pleasant summer’s day in July 1914 (which everyone said was one of the nicest summers they had experienced to that time).

So, enjoy the moment—but don’t think this means the US is committed to Ukrainian victory. This vote is a long-way short of that.

What the Vote Means for the War in 2024

This vote has come much later than it ever should have – and because of that Ukraine has suffered major losses it never should have been forced to experience. The Ukrainian armed forces have been fighting the last few months at a massive firepower disadvantage and Ukrainian cities and infrastructure have been protected by a dwindling stock of anti-air ammunition (which has allowed the Russians to destroy some very valuable targets). The result of the US abandoning Ukraine over the last 4 months has therefore been extremely painful.

There were even signs recently that holding the front line was becoming increasingly difficult for the Ukrainian military. The Russians have not yet been able to make large-scale advances (we are still talking about incremental gains – a kilometer here, a kilometer there) but the Ukrainians were getting pushed back in a number of different areas. The growing worry was that these small Russian gains would become larger and larger the longer the US withheld aid.

So even with the US restarting aid, the Ukrainians have been seriously damaged, and their armed forces are weaker than they would have been otherwise. Don’t underestimate the importance of these losses during the celebration of the resumption of US aid. The US has made Ukraine bleed.

At least now, however, with a major infusion of US aid, the Ukrainians should be able to stabilize the line. The Administration has been stockpiling large amounts of military aid for Ukraine and has it ready to go at the President’s command. One story said the US could start delivering large quantities of weapons and ammunition in “less than a week.”

The fact that these stories are being leaked to the press is a pretty good indication that the administration means to get the aid to Ukraine asap.

If the military does get there – then the Russian military will start attacking into much greater defensive firepower than they have seen (probably since September/October 2023). It does not take a rocket-scientist to see how this will go. Russian losses will grow and Ukrainian losses (if they are smart – and I think they will be for the rest of 2024) should decrease.

Indeed, the resumption of US aid for 2024 sets the stage for Ukraine to return to a form of active defense… This is a form of defense whose aim is not just to hold on (which has been Ukrainian policy for the last few months) but to take advantages of the great benefits of the defense to inflict increasingly large attritional losses on the Russians. It’s a pro-active defense, designed to take advantage of Russian offensives to increase destruction.

For instance, if the Gen. Kyrylo Budanov, the head of Ukrainian Military Intelligence, is right and the Russians launch a major offensive in June – know Ukraine can be prepared. The Russians will throw their forces again much better armed Ukrainian defenders. These defenders (whose morale will be improved by all the aid coming in) will be fighting back from a much better position and they will have every possibility of taking a brutal toll on the Russian attackers.

And a successful Ukrainian active defense campaign will be done alongside an increasing Ukrainian ranged campaign against Russian infrastructure in Crimea and in Russia itself. This aid, even if Trump comes into power in January 2025) therefore provides a precious window for Ukraine (and Europe) to make 2024 a year that Ukraine can use not just to hold on, but also to prepare to win the war.

That alone makes this a very important week.

Phillips P. Obrien is Professor of Strategic Studies at the University of St Andrew, Scotland.

Reprinted from the author’s blog Phillips’s Newsletter.  See the original here.

The views expressed in this opinion article are the author’s and not necessarily those of Kyiv Post.

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