John Herbst, Director of the Atlantic Council Eurasia Center
If Congress reaches an agreement on the border, no one will “kill the aid to Ukraine”
22.12.2023 12:42

Continued aid to Ukraine has become part of a complex and at the same time heated debate between the two parties in the US Congress and the Joe Biden administration in recent months. Republicans are pushing for changes to immigration policy, as well as tougher border controls with Mexico, refusing to pass a new foreign aid package until their demands are met. Neither the Senate nor the House were able to reach an agreement on these issues and went on Christmas break until early January. In an interview with Ukrinform, former US Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst, who now leads the Eurasia Center at the Atlantic Council, spoke of how difficult the ongoing negotiations are, how long they may last, and how the US elections affect support for Ukraine.


- Let's start with the presidential supplementary package stuck in Congress. Republicans demand migration reforms by blocking critical foreign assistance for Ukraine, that is at war now. Why is the approach of the Republican Party – which has always been vehemently opposed to Russia's aggression – different now?

- There are several reasons for the current situation in the Republican Party. The first has to do with the fact that there is a very large problem at the US border with Mexico, which they believe - and I think they're right about this - is been caused by the relatively speaking open border approach of the Biden administration. So, there is a great deal of concern about the border. But the linking of this issue to the question of Ukraine aid and also Israel aid is a result of the populist instincts of a small number of Republican Congress folks who have no idea of how important defeating Russia in Ukraine is to American interests. They're the ones who blocked the aid to Ukraine back at the end of September, and they are the ones who have insisted that if you're going to have aid to Ukraine, even Israel - which many of them support - you had to have a border deal. And the new Speaker of the House has accepted this. And that's why you have even seven Republicans like McConnell and Graham who have been very strong advocates of defeating Russia in Ukraine, saying you have to get the border deal done if you want to pass this through the House.

- What scenarios of further negotiations in the US Congress do you see? I mean, How complicated is the situation in the Senate now after they went on the holidays?

A very large majority of Americans think the border is a mess and a danger

- Well, this is a hard issue. It's hard politically. Well, it would probably be a good thing for Biden when he approaches the general election for the presidency next November to fix the border. A very large majority of Americans think the border is a mess and a danger. There is probably the largest majority on the Democratic Party base, who likes the current situation at the border. And in fact, they're beginning to complain about the negotiations between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate.

I suspect, given how difficult this (border) issue is, it might take a couple of months to reach a deal.

I believe that, in fact, progress has been made. But I also think the Biden administration would like to offer as little as possible on the border in order to get the aid. And the Republicans want to get as much as possible on the border in order to agree on the aid. And there may have been friction, or there was certainly a blow-up two weeks ago when you had a closed hearing in the Senate with Secretaries of State and Defense. But since then, according to reports, both in the papers and what we've heard privately, there has been progress towards an eventual solution. But I suspect, given how difficult this issue is, it might take a couple of months to reach a deal.

- After the Senate reaches the deal, should we expect the same long disputes in the House next year?

There's a small number of people in the House who really want to kill the aid to Ukraine

- I don't know, this is the short answer. Speaker Johnson has said he will put such a deal on the floor. He's also said he wants not just a deal on the border, he wants more clarity on administration policy towards Ukraine. And it's sort of a timeline of this assistance.

Anyway, it's unclear if Johnson is asking those questions to get a good answer or if he is asking those questions to have a reason not to put the package deal on the floor. People say he's operating in good faith, and I hope that's true. I'm not in a position to judge.

I think that there's a small number of people in the House, no more than ten, probably more like six, who really want to kill the aid to Ukraine. But if there is a deal, which includes serious controls on the border, it will probably be impossible for them to do that. They have to accept the deal. And again, I would not be surprised if a good deal is proposed by the Senate and then some members of Republicans in the House try and get even more, which could delay a final deal. Therefore, I think this thing could play out for two or three months. I hope it doesn't, but I think that's a possibility.


- Are there opportunities for plan "B" if the adoption of the new package for Ukraine will be delayed further after the New Year?

- Well, what we're talking about is new aid. There's still more aid that was approved last year, which is yet to be delivered. And we are delivering things right now. A new aid package will be announced I think tomorrow but that's aid which has already been approved, either for Ukraine or under Presidential Drawdown authority for defense purposes. So, more aid is arriving every few weeks coming from the United States to Ukraine despite this problem.

- Secretary of State Blinken recently said that the people who want to see the supplemental fail are sitting in Moscow, Tehran, and Beijing. In your opinion, can these countries really influence the US and EU decisions regarding Russia’s war in Ukraine?

- I don't think that these countries have an influence on the decision to send or not send the aid. But I do believe that the administration has been, at times, intimidated by Russian threats of escalation when deciding what weapon systems to send.


- Do you think that the US presidential and congressional elections next year will affect further support for Ukraine?

Ukraine has to defend itself as best it can

- I think there's a chance that they will. What has to happen now is again, we have to get this aid package passed. I think there's a better than 50% chance that we will, but it may take two or three months to get done. Then, I think what happens in the Republican primaries will have an influence on this question of looking to the future. And we can speculate about the future, but I think it's just speculation.

- What should Ukraine focus on in the current conditions, when the battlefield is not getting any easier?

- I think that Ukraine has to defend itself as best it can. I think you've done a pretty good job doing that and expect Ukraine will continue to do that. And I hope that the US will be providing the means to do that with more success.

Yaroslav Dovgopol, Washington, D.C.

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