A bipartisan group of Senators is urging the Trump administration to release security assistance funds for Ukraine meant to keep Russia at bay.
In a letter sent to White House acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney on Tuesday, the Senate’s Ukraine Caucus — a group of three Democrats and two Republicans — called the funds “vital to the long term viability of the Ukrainian military.”
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The financial assistance, which helped Ukraine acquire lethal military tools, has been held up in recent weeks for unknown reasons, as POLITICO first reported. White House officials have said they are simply reviewing the issue to ensure the money is being spent in line with America’s interests, but former officials and national security specialists are skeptical about the vague explanation.
The move has irked lawmakers and national security veterans, who argue that the United States must make a sustained commitment to countering Russia’s military aggression in the region and show that it stands with Ukraine. Russia annexed the Crimea region of Ukraine in 2014.
The security funding “has helped Ukraine develop the independent military capabilities and skills necessary to fend off the Kremlin’s continued onslaughts within its territory,” the senators wrote in their letter, which is signed by Democratic Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, Dick Durbin and Richard Blumenthal, as well as Republican Sens. Rob Portman and Ron Johnson.
“U.S.-funded security assistance has already helped turn the tide in this conflict, and it is necessary to ensure the protection of the sovereign territory of this young country, going forward,” they added.
The letter cites POLITICO’s report that President Donald Trump asked his national security team to review the funding program, known as the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. The funding was still on hold as of Tuesday morning, according to a person familiar with the matter.
“This funding is crucial to the long term stability of Ukraine and has the continued backing and approval of the U.S. Congress which appropriated these funds,” the senators wrote. “We strongly urge you to direct the Department of Defense to obligate these funds immediately.”
A senior administration official told POLITICO in response to the senators’ letter that “the president has made no secret when it comes to foreign assistance that U.S. interests abroad should be prioritized.” The Defense Department said last week that it supports the aid package.
Trump has repeatedly invoked his administration’s support for Ukraine, both financially and militarily, as evidence that he is tough on Russia. The United States completed its shipment of Javelin anti-tank missiles to Ukraine last May, finalizing a sale that Trump approved in 2017. For the 2019 fiscal year, lawmakers allocated $250 million in security aid to Ukraine, including money for weapons, training, equipment and intelligence support. Of the funds, Congress set aside $50 million for weaponry.
But Trump, while meeting with world leaders at the Group of Seven last month, advocated for Russia’s reinstatement to the group and blamed President Barack Obama, rather than Russian President Vladimir Putin, for Russia’s annexation of Crimea.
Vice President Mike Pence, meeting with Ukraine’s president Vladimir Zelensky in Poland on Sunday, did not publicly address whether the administration plans to unfreeze the funding ahead of its expiration at the end of September. The funds can’t be spent while they’re under review. The account was originally created by defense policy legislation enacted in late 2015 to help Ukraine battle pro-Russian separatists in Crimea.
Pence reaffirmed U.S. support for “the territorial integrity of Ukraine” and said the administration “will continue to stand with the people of Ukraine on your security, on territorial integrity, including Ukraine’s rightful claim to Crimea.”
He would not confirm that the hold on the aid package would be lifted, however, telling reporters that the administration is still evaluating where to send federal resources.