SecDef: Pulling Ukraine support would hand Putin a major win
Secretaries of state and defense urge Congress to pass $106B supplemental to support Israel and Ukraine—and send aid elsewhere as well.
Without additional aid from the United States, Russia could succeed in its war on Ukraine—and then unleash its military upon NATO members, the defense secretary warned Tuesday.
“If Putin is successful, he will not stop at Ukraine. And if you're a Baltic state, you're thinking, ‘I'm next.’ And, you know, there's no question in my mind that sooner or later…he will challenge NATO and we'll find ourselves in a shooting match,” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told senators during a hearing on the White House’s request to give the Pentagon an extra $106 billion for military aid, arms replenishment, humanitarian assistance, and more.
Ukraine “desperately needs a constant supply of warfighting capability in order to be successful. We would like to see them continue their operations through the winter. I think that's an imperative,” Austin said. “They can't do that if we've caused them to pause because there's a pause on the security assistance that we provide.”
State Secretary Antony Blinken echoed those concerns in his testimony, noting that the progressing war in Gaza could “divert” focus and resources away from Ukraine.
“Putin is very much trying to take advantage of the Hamas attack on Israel in the hopes that it will distract us, that it will divert our focus away from Ukraine and away from his aggression in Ukraine, and that it will result in the United States pulling back—pulling back its resources pulling back at support,” Blinken said. “And at the same time, he's allied with the exact elements that are trying to wreak havoc in Israel. So we see these things as being very much joined, which is one of the reasons our request is a joint request.”
Blinken also said pulling support from Ukraine would signal that other countries should do the same.
“Going back to February of 2022, the United States has provided about $75 billion, our allies and partners $90 billion” to Ukraine, he said. “Our alliance itself is founded on the proposition that we're all in this together. I think they would see this as a retreat from our own responsibilities.”
The secretaries’ comments come as Congress considers the White House’s request to pass a bill that would supplement the Defense Department’s (as-yet-unpassed) fiscal 2024 budget by $106 billion to assist Ukraine and Israel, replenish weapons stockpiles, and “invest in the defense industrial base.” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell supported Ukraine aid in the White House’s emergency funding request. But newly elected House Speaker Mike Johnson vowed last week to vote against the Biden administration’s supplemental funding because “our consensus among House Republicans is we need to bifurcate those issues.”
U.S. support of Israel has ignited public debate over the growing humanitarian crisis in the Gaza Strip and the number of Palestinian civilians that have been killed and injured by Israel’s military response to Hamas’ terrorist attacks on and since Oct. 7.
That debate spilled into the Tuesday hearing, with protestors repeatedly interrupting Blinken’s testimony. Protestors screamed “Ceasefire now!” before being escorted out of the hearing. Some sat in silence, raising hands painted red to resemble blood.
Sen. Susan Collins, vice chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, addressed the protestors’ calls, saying that “a ceasefire would be a strategic victory for Hamas. It would simply allow Hamas to bide its time and prepare for future attacks and pay no price for the greatest loss of Jewish lives in a single day since the Holocaust.”
Humanitarian aid a “strategic necessity’ in Gaza, Austin tells lawmakers
Included in the $100 billion request for Ukraine and Israel support is $10 billion in humanitarian aid. Much of that would go to UN-backed aid agencies working in Gaza, but not all.
Austin told the committee that working to improve conditions for Gazans is “strategic necessity” for the United States.
“I talk to my counterpart [Israeli] Minister of Defense [Yoav Gallant] nearly every day, and every day I talk to him, I remind him of the necessity of getting humanitarian assistance into Gaza. We just had such a conversation yesterday. And this is really, really important,” he said.
Blinken told lawmakers the funding request would help the United States meet pressing humanitarian needs around the world. “This would be vital for Ukraine, it would be vital for people in Gaza, but also, this would cover situations that we have to address in Sudan and Afghanistan and [Nagorno-Karabakh] and in other places.”
Blinken said he hopes 100 trucks carrying vital supplies will reach Gazans this week after a long delay. But he acknowledged that aid is a fraction—about a fifth—of the food and fuel that normally flow into Gaza. He also highlighted that since the start of the Biden presidency, the United States has been the top donor of humanitarian aid to Gaza, providing about $1.6 billion.
But under current conditions, the path of aid to Gazans is indirect at best. “There's also an absorptive capacity problem on the Gaza side given the conflict, given the horrific disruptions that we're seeing. So even if you could get trucks well above 100 going in, you need to have—on the receiving end—the capacity to actually both take and distribute that, that's also lacking. So we got to work on that, too,” Blinken said.
The United States distributes aid though UN relief organizations like UNICEF, the International Organization for Migration, and the World Food Program. Blinken said he has great confidence in them, but acknowledged he can not guarantee Hamas won’t divert some of the aid intended for Gazans.
White House spokesperson John Kirby told reporters Thursday that the current fuel needs in Gaza have reached crisis levels, and the urgent need for fuel is also affecting the availability of water, because fuel is needed to run purification equipment.
“No fuel has gotten in, and the existing stocks are dang near down to zero. And that's perilous for the hospitals, for the water pumps. And so we're working hard with Israel to make sure we can find some accommodations to get fuel,” he said.
Hamas has a big interest in diverting fuel, Kirby acknowledged, particularly to supply electricity to massive underground military operations centers. “We want to be very clear on this. We have seen no indication, none, that Hamas has gotten their hands on any of the humanitarian assistance that has gone in, none of it. It goes from these UN trucks to humanitarian organizations and the UN for delivery to the people of Gaza. That's what we've seen with every single one of them. And with the fuel, the fuel that was existing in tanks that they could tap simply went to existing legitimate humanitarian needs,” he said. “We have tried to make assurances to the Israelis.”
The United States is also working to get the roughly 400 American citizens currently in Gaza out of the region by working with intermediaries, Blinken said: “The impediment is simple. It's Hamas.”