Biden says he'll back Ukraine as long as it takes. But some take aim at the price tag
Updated February 20, 2023 at 6:22 PM ET
When President Biden made a secret trip Monday to Ukraine marking the anniversary of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, he declared that the United States is going to back Ukraine as long as it takes.
"I thought it was critical that there not be any doubt, none whatsoever, about U.S. support for Ukraine in the war," Biden said, standing beside Ukrainian President President Volodymr Zelenskyy.
Biden announced a half a billion dollars of additional assistance to Ukraine including the delivery of "artillery ammunition, anti-armor systems, and air surveillance radars to help protect the Ukrainian people from aerial bombardments."
But after Congress appropriated more than $112 billion in military and economic support in the space of a single year — and with no signs of an end to the conflict — polls show a growing number of Americans feel the United States is giving Ukraine too much.
That sentiment has fueled calls for more scrutiny of how U.S. assistance is being used in a country known for its struggles with corruption.
"My great fear is that there's going to be some scandal," said Mark Cancian, an expert in military procurement who has worked both at the Office of Management and Budget and the Pentagon. "Either weapons show up in the Middle East, someplace where they're not supposed to be, or some oligarch is discovered to have siphoned funds off and is sailing around the Mediterranean in his yacht, paid for by American taxpayers."
So far, there have not been signs that U.S. aid to Ukraine has ended up in the wrong hands. But the war is far from over. Ukraine is asking for more support to continue fighting Russia. And the long and expensive work of rebuilding after the conflict has yet to begin.
"When you spend that much money that fast, there's bound to be problems, there's bound to be leakage," said John Sopko, the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.
Sopko, who has reported on failure after failure with aid for Afghanistan, warns that a country can only absorb so much aid before things begin to spill over into the illicit economy.
"You take a sponge, you put it on your kitchen counter and you fill it with water. Drip, drip, drip. It holds the water, " Sopko said. "Then all of a sudden it reaches a certain point, and then all the water starts spreading out from that sponge."
That tipping point tends to be between 15% to 45% of a nation's GDP. Ukraine's GDP before the war was $200 billion.
Congress is promising greater oversight
The risks of problems have sparked concern on Capitol Hill. Republican and Democratic supporters of Ukraine are worried about maintaining public support for U.S. aid.
At the start of the conflict, some 60% of Americans backed sending weapons to Ukraine, according to polling from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. Now, that's slipped to 48%.
Republican House Speaker Kevin McCarthy has supported Ukraine, but more recently has warned that there "can't be a blank check" for Ukraine aid when the United States faces so much debt of its own.
The House Armed Services Committee plans to hold a hearing on oversight efforts with the Defense Department's Inspector General on Feb. 28, according to a senior committee aide, who was not authorized to speak publicly about the hearing.
The aide said that Chairman Mike Rogers, R-Ala., will pursue "unprecedented oversight" of U.S. aid sent to Ukraine.
The most recent congressional funding package built in more funding for oversight of the aid, and Republican leaders have asked for more regular updates on checks and balances on the spending.
The administration has ramped up reviews of the aid
Administration officials have ramped up their oversight. Government watchdogs have launched more than 60 reviews and completed at least 14.
One report, released last month, found that there's a "significant risk of misuse and diversion given the volume and speed of assistance" during the war. It also cites a classified Pentagon report that raised concerns that the Defense Department isn't able to fully monitor the weapons, in part because U.S. troops are not allowed in the country.
But so far, there has been no credible evidence of wide-scale problems, said Jessica Lewis, assistant secretary for the State Department's bureau of political-military affairs.
The administration is taking steps to prevent Russia – or someone else – from getting their hands on U.S. weapons.
"We should all be concerned about the possibility of a weapon ending up in the wrong hands outside of Ukraine," Lewis said. "That is why we have to put all of these things in place."
U.S. inspectors have been to Ukraine and the defense staff has been increased at the Kyiv embassy, she said. The Ukrainian government has signed detailed security agreements about safeguarding the weapons and not transferring them to third parties.
"That is our responsibility to our own national security," she said. "It's our responsibility to our war fighters, and it's our responsibility to the American public to make sure when we transfer a weapon, we are doing so responsibly."
The reviews are spread among a host of watchdogs. That could be a problem
The myriad oversight reviews are being done by a sprawling number of administration offices in several departments and agencies. John Sopko said he is concerned that there's a lack of coordination.
He said there should be a dedicated team for the work and he worries that the U.S. government is waiting too long to set that up. That's a lesson that should have been learned from Afghanistan, he said, where his office would have been more effective had it been established much earlier in the conflict.
Sopko is particularly worried about economic aid. The U.S. is sending about $50 billion to help prop up the Kyiv government, money that helps pay the salaries of officials, police officers and teachers.
"That was one of the biggest concerns we had in Afghanistan," he said. "Because the salaries we were paying weren't going to the right people or weren't going to people at all ... So we had ghost civil servants, ghost people in the military, ghost teachers or whatever."
U.S. officials say government auditors are working with the World Bank to ensure taxpayer dollars are not misspent.
Ukraine has a history of corruption, but it's a sensitive issue right now
Last year, Ukraine was ranked 116 out of 180 countries for corruption by Transparency International. The issue has scuttled the country's bid to join the European Union and kept it out of NATO.
Talking about corruption in Ukraine is kind of taboo these days. Those who raise concerns have been accused of spreading "Russian propaganda."
But, just months before the war started, Biden himself was complaining about corruption, explaining that was why Ukraine wasn't getting closer to joining the NATO alliance.
"The fact is, they still have to clean up corruption," Biden said. "The fact is, they have to meet other criteria to get into the action plan. And so school's out on that question."
The administration has avoided public criticism of Ukraine since Russia invaded. But it has quietly continued to press for change.
Zelenskyy — who was elected to office on an anti-corruption platform — had submitted a bill in early 2021 to close the Kyiv Administrative District Court, long criticized for corruption.
But it wasn't until December that it happened, just days after the U.S. State Department sanctioned its chairman, Pavlo Vovk, for soliciting bribes.
"I think that that's a pretty good example that corruption can be pretty resilient in Ukraine," said Steven Pifer, a Clinton-era U.S. ambassador to Ukraine. "It took some time... but it finally was shut down. And that was a good thing for Ukraine's justice system."
Then last month, Zelenskyy fired another group of officials in a corruption scandal. "I want people to understand," Zelensky said in a video address during the scandal, "We will never return to how things were before ... to the lifestyles that bureaucrats had gotten used to, to the old way of chasing power."
Strong oversight may be in Biden's best political interests
In Washington, many of the calls for more oversight are coming from Republicans and Democrats who support the war effort. They do not want to give political leverage to those who are more interested in cutting assistance altogether.
"We as Democrats — as the White House — I think we should continue to work with these national security Republicans ... and their fellow travelers in good faith to not let domestic politics prevent us from staying united behind Ukraine," said Rep. Jake Auchincloss, D-Mass.
It's also in Biden's political interests to work with those Republicans. He's widely expected to make a run for a second term in the 2024 election, and he doesn't want a Ukraine spending scandal to become an election issue.
In Ukraine Monday, Biden emphasized that there was broad, bipartisan support in Washington - and that Americans are invested in the Ukrainian cause.
"For all the disagreement we have in our Congress on some issues, there is significant agreement on support for Ukraine," he said.
"It's not just about freedom in Ukraine," Biden said. "It's about freedom of democracy at large."
NPR's Lexie Schapitl and Devin Speak contributed to this report.
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