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As Ukraine fears U.S. will cut off aid, White House sends reassurances

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KYIV — For months, even as progress stalled on the battlefield, President Biden has insisted that Washington will stand by Ukraine "for as long as it takes."

But with some Republicans in Congress obstructing the president's request for $60 billion, getting new aid to Kyiv is taking longer and longer — and stoking fears here that continued American assistance is far from guaranteed.

Growing concerns over the prospect of dwindling U.S. assistance were on display in two visits to Washington this month — first by Bridget Brink, the U.S. ambassador to Kyiv, and then by a delegation of high-level Ukrainian officials, including Yulia Svyrydenko, the first deputy prime minister and economy minister, and Andriy Yermak, who heads President Volodymyr Zelensky's office.

Both visits included trips to Capitol Hill to plead Ukraine's case for more funding for the military and direct budget support that will keep the country running in wartime — and both came up empty, for now at least.

Svyrydenko said that in more than two dozen meetings — including with Secretary of State Antony Blinken — she saw "the same willingness of key partners to help Ukraine [until] the victory."

But Congress last week approved spending bills into early next year to avoid a government shutdown and broke for Thanksgiving recess without including money for Ukraine.

On Monday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin arrived in Kyiv in a bid to offer some reassurance to Ukrainian leaders on behalf of the Biden administration. Austin met with Zelensky and Defense Minister Rustem Umerov, as well as Gen. Valery Zaluzhny, the country's top military officer.

Accompanying Austin in Kyiv was Gen. Christopher Cavoli, who heads the U.S. European Command and serves as NATO's Supreme Allied Commander Europe. It was Cavoli's first visit to the Ukrainian capital since the full-scale Russian invasion in February 2022.

"Our congressional members have valid questions and we will answer [them], but I would point out that Ukraine matters, what happens here matters, not just to Ukraine but to the entire world," Austin told reporters after meeting Ukrainian officials.

The visit by Austin and Cavoli was also intended to signal that American support will not be undermined by Israel's war with Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip — a fear that has percolated since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas.

Austin announced that the U.S. military would send approximately $100 million in additional donations of U.S. equipment to Kyiv, including Stinger antiaircraft missiles, artillery shells and cold-weather gear. The size of that package, smaller than most previous announcements, appeared to reflect the new reality of tighter constraints in U.S. support to Ukraine.

He also said Ukrainian forces had what they needed to fight Russia over the winter — despite the setbacks during summer and fall.

"Without U.S. assistance we can't simply not stop the Russian invasion, we can't survive," said Dmytro Lubinets, the Ukrainian parliament's commissioner for human rights. "We paid for the will to be independent every day with our health and lives, but we don't want to simply die without military [and] financial assistance. It's not only my position — I can confirm that this is the position of 99 percent of our population."

The Pentagon has rushed Israeli forces weapons and other military supplies in the wake of Hamas's Oct. 7 attack. Last week, Zelensky lamented that deliveries of much-needed 155mm artillery shells to Ukraine have slowed down since the Israel-Gaza war began. A senior defense official said Monday, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive security matters, that Washington has "not had to divert any aid intended for Ukraine as a result of the situation in Israel."

But Pentagon officials have said they are now "metering out" Ukraine assistance as the stockpile of available funds dwindles. Officials traveling with Austin said Washington at least "for some time" would be able to continue sending aid, including longer-range weapons and artillery ammunition, which are a cornerstone of Ukraine's military strategy.

Addressing the joint demands from Israel and Ukraine, a separate senior defense official told reporters ahead of Austin's arrival in Kyiv that the countries are facing "two different kinds of fights."

"There is some overlap," said the official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity. "But where there is overlap in certain kinds of ammunition … there is no reduction in provision of capabilities."

Austin and Cavoli arrived in Kyiv as winter weather has set in and a growing sense of gloom now shrouds the capital. In addition to apprehension about reduced support, there are mounting fears that few battlefield gains are likely anytime soon and that increased Russian strikes on civilian infrastructure could soon begin.

Many in the country are now accepting that the rapid, decisive victory they once imagined is probably impossible — and that the war could drag on for many years.

As he welcomed Austin to the heavily secured presidential compound in downtown Kyiv, Zelensky said the visit sent an important signal at a challenging moment. Austin replied that the United States will stand with Ukraine for "the long haul," but his public remarks stopped short of expressing confidence that the administration's recent budget request would be approved anytime soon.

Under Biden's funding request, some $45 billion would be directed to Ukraine's military and the remainder would go to economic and humanitarian assistance, including direct budget support that would pay salaries for teachers and hospital workers and finance other basic services to keep the country functioning while most resources are diverted to the war.

Biden proposed including that funding, along with about $14 billion in funding for Israel, in a massive supplemental package, but House Speaker Mike Johnson (R-La.) has resisted joint action on the two conflicts. Instead, Johnson has sought to split the proposals and tie assistance to Israel to huge cuts for the Internal Revenue Service.

In a recent letter to U.S. lawmakers, top Biden administration officials emphasized the importance of budgetary support to Kyiv, warning that "reducing or delaying direct budget support will imperil Ukraine's military efforts."

Ukraine is facing a budget deficit of about $42 billion next year. "We eagerly anticipate support from the USA in this critical endeavor," Svyrydenko said, noting that she also recognized "the importance of Ukraine becoming self-sufficient."

The Ukrainian delegation's visit was "a sobering experience," said a congressional aide familiar with their discussions on Capitol Hill.

Conversations involved "Yermak asking for any and all advice from members on how to move the supplemental," the aide said. Ukraine remains "determined," the aide noted, but "the tide changed and they know it."

Some in Kyiv put the blame squarely on poor planning by the Ukrainian side.

"All the responsibility for budget troubles … and lack of money received from the U.S. now is the total responsibility of the people who stole money from the Ukrainian military budget," said Mykola Davydiuk, a Ukrainian political analyst — pointing to corruption allegations that plagued the Defense Ministry earlier this year.

Anton Kuchukhidze, co-founder of the United Ukraine think tank, said that the small group of Republicans who oppose aid to Ukraine "have never actually dealt with Ukraine themselves and do not have a deep knowledge of Ukrainian issues, in particular, the interdependence of [U.S. and Ukrainian] security."

U.S. lawmakers have voiced strong bipartisan support for Israel but are more divided over future aid to Ukraine. That has also raised the prospect that some backers may try to force Zelensky into negotiations with Moscow.

Zelensky is adamant that any territorial concessions would merely reward Russian military aggression.

In an opinion piece in The Washington Post last week, Biden argued that instability in Europe would eventually draw in the United States, as it had in the past. U.S. assistance to Ukraine now "prevents a broader conflict tomorrow," he wrote.

In Europe, meanwhile, there are deepening concerns about Kyiv's prospects.

"The situation is rather bad," said a European official, also speaking on the condition of anonymity to describe sensitive conversations.

Just months ago, there was hope that strong support from the West, particularly the United States, would give Ukraine the upper hand on the battlefield. But stalemate at the front and signs of fraying support have many in Europe worried.

"You have to have serious leverage for Putin to take you seriously. If they were forced to the table now, they don't have the leverage," the European official said. "The way it looks now, Putin has the leverage."

As a result, the official continued, Putin is reluctant to signal willingness to talk "because he knows that currently he knows he holds the cards." Russian forces now occupy about one-fifth of Ukraine's sovereign territory, including Crimea, which Moscow invaded and illegally annexed in 2014.

Some diplomats and officials worry that a frozen conflict will give Russia time to rebuild its armed forces and potentially strike again within years. But the sense of alarm and outrage that drove the E.U. response through the first year and a half of the war sometimes seems absent.

To back Ukraine on the battlefield, for instance, E.U. countries pledged in the spring to deliver 1 million rounds of ammunition within a year. Last week, with just months to go, officials conceded that they would fail to reach that goal.

"The 1 million will not be reached; you have to assume that," German Defense Minister Boris Pistorius said in Brussels. So far, 300,000 rounds have been delivered, officials said.

The new government of Slovakia this month rejected a proposed package of military aid for Kyiv, fulfilling a campaign promise made by Prime Minister Robert Fico and raising fear that other Ukraine skeptics will be emboldened.

While the European Commission publicly touts Ukraine's progress toward opening formal membership talks to join the European Union, in private conversations, officials and diplomats express skepticism about the country's readiness, often citing concerns about corruption.

A year ago, Zelensky was a celebrity in European corridors of power. These days, some diplomats and officials seem eager to trade gossip about rifts within his inner circle and speculate about domestic political chaos lurking beneath the surface.

Uncertainty about the future of U.S. aid is adding to this new dynamic.

"America believes strongly that Ukraine must not fail," said one Central European ambassador in Kyiv, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive war issues. "This is different from countries in our region that believe Ukraine must win."

Rauhala reported from Brussels.

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