On 10 August the US president Joe Biden sent a request to Congress for another $24bn in funding for Ukraine. It was the first since Republicans took over the House of Representatives in January, at a time when public support for further military aid to Ukraine has weakened. Many Republicans have become increasingly vocal in their opposition to it. Between them and Democrats a majority to approve the package can still be found, but there are doubts that the Republican speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy, will want to defy the growing segment of his party opposed to the package.
Every leading candidate vying for the Republican nomination for president is sceptical of providing more support for Ukraine. Meanwhile, 70 House Republicans voted in July to cut off all security assistance to the European country. The pace of the current Ukrainian counteroffensive, slower than many expected, has influenced the tone of the discussion and risks further undermining support for Ukraine.
I spoke with Representative Don Bacon, a Republican from Nebraska, about the state of the debate in the House and the likelihood that the package will be approved when Congress returns from its summer recess on 12 September. Bacon, a staunch Ukraine supporter, is a four-term congressman representing the Omaha area, and a member of the powerful House Committee on Armed Services, which has jurisdiction over funding of the armed forces, defence policy and ongoing military operations. When we spoke, the 60-year-old former US air force officer had just announced his re-election bid and was driving through rural Nebraska.
Bruno Maçães: You may know that the Biden administration, particularly the national security adviser Jake Sullivan, has been telling European allies, including Ukraine, that the new support package for Ukraine will be approved in Congress. Are they right to be so confident?
Don Bacon: I think it will be approved but not just the way President Biden wants it. He can no longer just say, “Here’s a $24bn package, approve it.” We’re going to review it. I am going to want to add to it. I think we should be adding ATACMS [Army Tactical Missile System] and other long-range precision fire, like the British have. The British have done a great job there. I applaud the British. Look, I am going to make sure the weapons Ukraine actually needs are included because the president does only enough to ensure the Ukrainians can keep a gridlock. I am going to push back at them.
BM: Do you have support to push for those changes?
DB: About 30 per cent of Republicans have gone against aiding Ukraine. I think they’re wrong. It is in our national security interest that Ukraine remains independent. There’s a good majority of Republicans that think we should send more advanced weapons. Some Democrats will oppose [more advanced weapons] out of loyalty to Biden but in the end, we can push them. We need to push them to do the right thing. The Russians have moved a lot of their stockpiles and command centres outside the range of Himars [a light multiple rocket launcher]. The ATACMS have a 300-kilometre range and that will push them even farther back. It will make it much harder for Russia to defend against Ukraine’s counteroffensive.
BM: How do you explain the administration’s reluctance to provide these weapons?
DB: They keep saying they worry about provoking the Russians. I find it weak. Biden and Jake Sullivan are always wringing their hands and worrying. They are double- and triple-guessing themselves. They don’t want to antagonise Russia, but you know Russia has no problem using long-range munitions to hit Ukraine. Our red line should be no US troops in Ukraine, but beyond that let’s give them the weapons that can help them win the war.
BM: Do you think this will be the last aid package for Ukraine? Is that why you want to push for changes? Is it the last opportunity?
DB: We should have given them these weapons six months ago in my view. I want to believe we’ll be able to continue supporting Ukraine even beyond this request. I want them to win and succeed, but you never know when the opportunity is going to shut. We should be doing it right now. We should have provided ATACMS six months ago.
BM: Is there any chance Speaker McCarthy will not put this package up for a vote because of the divisions in the party you mentioned?
DB: I think he will do it. He will probably try to negotiate a deal with the administration with reductions of spending elsewhere. But I don’t have a crystal ball.
BM: What’s your evaluation of the counteroffensive? And how is it shaping the debate in Congress?
DB: Ukraine is making incremental gains. I wish them every success. Russia is a barbaric aggressor. Some people worry it’s too slow, but I don’t. I would prefer Ukraine to save the lives of their troops, be meticulous, do what they think they need to do. And you know, they could go faster if the US provided more high-quality weapons.