Lawmakers pressed top Pentagon officials Thursday to explain America’s ultimate goal in Ukraine, how exactly victory over Russia can be measured, and just how much money and military equipment the U.S. is willing to commit in the latest sign that the political sales job for supporting Kyiv is getting tougher by the day.
With skepticism growing in some corners of the Republican Party about the tens of billions of dollars sent or committed to the war, the Biden administration faces calls to define its endgame in the Russia-Ukraine war.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told a congressional budget hearing Thursday that the aim is to defeat the Russian invasion and uphold a post-World War II international order. He said it’s up to Ukraine to define many of the specifics, including the key question of whether Kyiv will insist on wresting all of the disputed Donbas region and the Crimean Peninsula from Russian control.
Russia forcibly annexed Crimea in 2014 and has held it ever since, but Ukrainian officials have said they intend to retake the territory. A looming Ukrainian counteroffensive will fuel hopes of an eventual victory for Kyiv, though Russia has shown no signs of surrender and is in the midst of a massive military mobilization initiative.
Mr. Austin and Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, tried to frame the conflict as a direct security concern for the West. A Russian victory, they suggested, could usher in World War III.
“The president was very clear about the strategic end state” in Ukraine, Gen. Milley said. “The strategic end state is the global rules-based international order that was put in place in 1945 is upheld.
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“How do you do that? How do you know you’ve achieved that end state? You achieve that end state when Ukraine remains a free, sovereign, independent country with its territory intact,” he told the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense.
“If that rules-based order — which is in its 80th year — if that goes out the window, then be very careful,” he said. “We’ll be doubling our defense budgets at that point because that will introduce not an era of great-power competition but an era of great-power conflict. And that will be extraordinarily dangerous for the whole world.”
Mr. Austin said flatly that U.S. aid has no end date.
“We will support Ukraine’s defense for as long as it takes,” he said.
When pressed on whether control of Crimea is a necessary part of a Ukrainian victory, Gen. Milley said, “That is a decision for Ukraine” and its leaders to make. Retaking Crimea, he said, is “an extraordinarily difficult goal to achieve militarily.”
Lawmakers zeroed in on that question. They pressed Gen. Milley and Mr. Austin on the administration’s long-term policy for Ukraine and whether the U.S. is willing to commit to helping Kyiv mount what would likely be a years-long, bloody push to force all Russian military and proxy forces out of Ukrainian territory.
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“I think that’s where this becomes a different situation and I would say a much more dangerous situation,” said Rep. Chris Stewart, Utah Republican. “If we say our goal is to reclaim all of the eastern Donetsk [province in Ukraine] and then including Crimea … the evidence and intelligence and experience is very clear that is a very different thing than we’re talking about.”
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy this week visited parts of Donetsk, including Bakhmut, where Ukrainian and Russian forces have engaged in weeks of fierce fighting.
Ukrainian military commanders said they will soon mount a counteroffensive campaign similar to the one last fall, when Ukraine retook Kharkiv, Kherson and other key cities.
Congressional Republicans remain mostly supportive of U.S. aid for Ukraine despite a growing movement to explain exactly what Washington wants to achieve with that aid over the long term.
The Republican-controlled House, in particular, appears to have little appetite for continued aid without a clear explanation from the Biden administration of how it envisions the conflict ending. More specifically, lawmakers want the Pentagon to provide explicit detail about the equipment and systems it wants to give Ukraine and why.
“Congress will not be writing blank checks. It’s important that you communicate future requests for funding for Ukraine clearly, thoroughly and early,” said Rep. Ken Calvert, California Republican and subcommittee chairman.
Mr. Calvert blasted the administration for “giving Ukraine just enough assistance to survive but not enough to win.”
Other voices in the Republican Party have pressed the administration to send more aid to Ukraine, including fighter jets. Mr. Zelenskyy has repeatedly pleaded for F-16 fighter jets, but the Biden administration has refused.
The U.S. faces more pressure to deliver fighter jets to Ukraine after Poland and Slovakia announced that they would send their own Soviet-era MiG-29 planes. Slovak leaders said Thursday that the first four of its MiGs had been handed over to the Ukrainian military. Another nine are expected to be delivered soon.
Russia has received drones, missiles and other equipment from Iran and North Korea. Concern that Beijing may send direct military assistance grew this week as Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow.
“It’s troubling what we’ve seen,” Mr. Austin said of the Russian-Chinese relationship. “It will be even more troubling if Xi decides to provide material support to Russia. It would prolong the conflict and certainly broaden the conflict not only in the region but globally.”
In its $842 billion budget request, the Pentagon describes China as the nation’s “pacing challenge.”
The budget request includes a 40% increase to the administration’s Pacific Deterrence Initiative meant to counter China’s growing military expansion in the Indo-Pacific region. Mr. Austin said the $9.1 billion will help fund better defenses for Hawaii and Guam, which are seen as strategic linchpins for U.S. military operations in the area.
The proposed Pentagon budget includes more than $61 billion for the Air Force, including funding for jet fighters and the B-21 strategic bomber that was unveiled in December. It also calls for $48 billion in sea power, including the construction of nine Navy warships.
Neither the budget nor America’s commitment to Ukraine should suggest that the U.S. is on the verge of war, Gen. Milley said.
“Both the People’s Republic of China and Russia have the means to threaten our interests and our way of life,” he said. “But war with Russia or China is neither inevitable nor imminent.”
• Mike Glenn contributed to this story, which is based in part on wire service reports.
• Ben Wolfgang can be reached at email@example.com.
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