April 22nd, 2024

US defense chief vows continued aid to Ukraine, even as Congress is stalled on funding bill

By Lolita C. Baldor, The Associated Press on March 19, 2024.

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany (AP) – Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin vowed Tuesday that the U.S. will continue to support Ukraine’s war effort against Russia, even as the U.S. Congress remains stalled over funding to send additional weapons to the front.

“The United States will not let Ukraine fail,” said Austin, addressing more than 50 defense leaders from Europe and around the world who are meeting at the Ramstein Air Base in Germany. “This coalition will not let Ukraine fail. And the free world will not let Ukraine fail.”

The meeting comes a week after U.S. defense officials managed to find and use $300 million in contract savings to fund a new package of military aid for Ukraine, pulling weapons from Pentagon stocks.

It was the first tranche of weapons sent since December, even as battlefield conditions in Ukraine have been getting increasingly dire.

The found money – which officials called a “one-time shot” – allowed the Defense Department to use presidential drawdown authority (PDA) to pull weapons and equipment from Pentagon stocks and send them quickly to Ukraine. The funds are then used to buy replacement items to ensure the U.S. military is ready to fight and protect the homeland.

U.S. leaders had insisted for the past three months that they couldn’t take more weapons off the shelves because they have run out of money to replenish the stocks. Congress has been deadlocked for months over a new $95 billion supplemental bill that includes about $60 billion in aid for Ukraine.

U.S. officials maintain there is bipartisan support for the package, but a number of Republicans oppose it and House Speaker Mike Johnson has refused to bring the bill to the House floor for a vote.

U.S. officials have been publicly expressing the hope that lawmakers will manage to act soon, but they have also been struggling to find other ways to get assistance to Ukraine.

Defense officials continue to warn that Ukraine remains heavily outgunned by Russia on the battlefield, and note persistent reports of Ukrainian troops rationing or running out of ammunition on the front lines.

Just last month, Ukrainian troops withdrew from the eastern city of Avdiivka, where outnumbered defenders had held off a Russian assault for four months. Troops complained of running low on ammunition while facing a constant barrage of airstrikes from glide bombs, enormous unguided Soviet-era weapons, retrofitted with a navigational targeting system, that obliterate everything around them, as well as motion-sensing explosive drones that could enter buildings and hunt personnel.

Tuesday marks the 20th meeting of the Ukraine Defense Contact Group, which has been the key organization coordinating for the delivery of weapons and other aid to Ukraine.

In his opening remarks, Austin said Russia has paid a “staggering cost” for the war, repeating estimates that at least 315,000 Russian troops have been killed or wounded in the war, which has cost up to $211 billion.

“Ukraine’s troops face harsh conditions and hard fighting. And Ukraine’s civilians endure a constant barrage of Russian missiles and Iranian drones,” said Austin. “But Ukraine won’t back down. And neither will the United States.”

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