Ukraine forced to watch, understand America’s dysfunctional Congressional politics

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The most important decision for the war in Ukraine right now isn’t being made in Kyiv or Moscow. It isn’t being made by a former television comedian turned wartime leader, or a veteran KGB spy who is pushing for the return of a great empire. Instead, it’s being made in Washington by a once-obscure Louisiana lawyer who, against all expectations, became speaker of the House last year.

After the Senate voted in favor of a military aid package for U.S. allies that included $60 billion for Ukraine early Tuesday, all eyes are now on House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.). Once mostly known (if at all) for his unusual legal history in support of creationism, Johnson was propelled to a position of power over a war of geopolitical importance amid a very chaotic — and very American — period of political instability.

Johnson now holds a lot of global power in his hands — and he is willing to use it. The speaker has already preemptively said he would block the Senate bill from the floor, pointing toward a lack of progress on U.S. border security issues. “America deserves better than the Senate’s status quo,” Johnson said in a statement Monday.

Ukraine and its allies are watching cautiously and treading carefully. In a video message released Tuesday, President Volodymyr Zelensky praised the Senate vote and offered a message to the House. “We hope for principled support,” Zelensky said. “And we believe that America will continue to be a leader.”

British Foreign Secretary David Cameron joined the calls Wednesday, appealing to the shared history of World War II and the U.S.-U.K. fight against the Islamic State. “As Congress debates and votes on this funding package for Ukraine, I am going to drop all diplomatic niceties. I urge Congress to pass it,” the former prime minister wrote for the Hill. “We must all ask ourselves — who is watching?” he added, pointing not only to Moscow, but also Beijing and Tehran.

But the most anxious watchers of the House speaker are on Ukraine’s battlefields, where shortages of all kinds are already profoundly felt. There, the debates are watched via Telegram channels in trenches and tanks. “The lives of our boys depend on” U.S. funding, Oleksander Kucheriavenko, a Ukrainian soldier fighting near Ocheretyne, Donetsk, told the Wall Street Journal.

Front-line Ukrainian infantry units report acute shortage of soldiers

For these Ukrainians, understanding the political nuances of U.S. aid is an increasingly complicated task. Before he was speaker, Johnson had joined other hard-line Republicans in voting against sending money to Ukraine numerous times. Then, soon after he took up the position, he spoke in support of Kyiv.

“Now, we can’t allow Vladimir Putin to prevail in Ukraine, because I don’t believe it would stop there, and it would probably encourage and empower China to perhaps make a move on Taiwan,” Johnson said in October during an interview with Fox News’s Sean Hannity. “We have these concerns. We’re not going to abandon them.”

But Johnson changed his tune again and pushed for Ukraine funding to be linked to U.S. border security resources, delaying the process in the Senate by months. After meeting with Zelensky during his visit to Washington in December, the House speaker praised Ukraine for being “on the right side of this fight” but quickly turned to criticizing the Biden administration on immigration.

Whatever his beliefs, Johnson isn’t the real problem for Ukraine. Polls show increasing skepticism of aid for Ukraine among Republican voters. Johnson, meanwhile, faces pressure from former president Donald Trump, who is campaigning for a return to the White House on the border and has little sympathy for Ukrainian needs. At a rally this past weekend, Trump appeared to be open to the idea of allowing Russia to attack a NATO ally if it didn’t spend enough on defense, suggesting that he would encourage Russia to do “whatever the hell they want” to the nation.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) has led calls to remove Johnson as speaker if he puts a Ukraine funding bill on the floor for a vote. Greene is a firebrand Trump ally, but even some stalwart supporters of Ukraine have begun to align with the former president. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a longtime foreign policy hawk who visited Kyiv last year, made what my colleagues dubbed an “about-face on Ukraine aid” and voted against the Senate package this week.

The Senate voted 70-29 in favor of that package, with 22 Republicans joining Democrats to support it — and in doing so, defying Trump. But that doesn’t mean the House has to vote on it. And even if it does get through to a vote, there are numerous difficult contingencies. Ukraine funding is lumped in with funding for Israel, which could see more progressive Democrats voting against it.

If some kind of solution was worked out that included U.S. border security measures, as Johnson has repeatedly claimed he wants, it is likely to be Republicans that blow it up: They already rejected one bipartisan bill that attempted to do both after pressure from Trump.

Senate passes $95 billion Ukraine, Israel aid package amid GOP divide

The United States is hardly the only country with a divisive, chaotic legislature. Cameron may talk tough on Ukraine, but he knows all too well the power of populist backbench politics after being pushed to a Brexit vote that ultimately led him to resign as prime minister. And if there is any benefit at all to this for Kyiv, it’s that it makes Ukraine’s parliament — the Rada, with its modern history of brawling and fistfights — look relatively benign.

But one of the knock-on effects of being the most powerful nation in the world is that the world will get to know your political system very well — along with all its petty quirks and partisan divisions. There’s little doubt that America is the most powerful nation in the world militarily: Just this week, the International Institute for Strategic Studies estimated that the United States made up more than 40 percent of global military spending in 2023, a record $2.2 trillion.

The long-term impact of America’s political dysfunction and creeping isolationism may be countries looking for other options, whether these are moves toward self-sufficiency in Europe or policies in the Global South that favor China or Russia. But those changes will take time. For now, the world will have to keep watching the U.S. political system — whether it likes it or not.

After the Senate decision this week, Kyiv School of Economics president and former Ukrainian economy minister Tymofiy Mylovanov wrote on social media that he was “so frustrated” with the U.S. political system on Ukraine but that he had new hope after the vote. “Is this a sign that reason will prevail and that while democracy is messy it eventually gets the right thing done?” he wrote.

He’ll have to keep watching.

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