Sen. Angus King sat across from Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky during an unannounced trip to that country earlier this month and debated keeping quiet.
The independent senator from Maine thought to himself, “Do I dare say this?” King, a member of both the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Senate Intelligence Committee, told RealClearPolitics that he didn’t want to create “an incident.” But in that delicate diplomatic moment, with so much at stake, blunt advice was needed: “I took a deep breath and said, ‘Mr. President, a scandal would really screw this thing up.’”
Under President Biden, the United States has rallied the West in support of Ukraine as that nation tries to fight off Russian invaders. Though unwavering, economic and military aid isn’t unconditional. “Misuse of money or material,” King warned, would jeopardize the lifeline to Kyiv. The message was received. According to the senator, “He got it immediately.”
Zelensky removed several senior Ukrainian officials from their posts earlier this week reportedly over allegations of corruption and as a public demonstration to the West that Kyiv won’t tolerate graft. The move comes as House Republicans promise additional oversight of how the tens of billions in economic and military aid has been used and spent.
The White House isn’t worried. They say they do take the concern seriously. They just haven't seen any maleficence thus far, according to John Kirby, Biden’s national security spokesman who said Wednesday that neither military nor financial assistance “have fallen prey to any kind of corruption in Ukraine.”
“Correct,” Kirby replied without qualification when asked by RCP to confirm that the administration had not yet identified any previous misuse of equipment or misappropriation of funds from the United States. King was similarly impressed.
While visiting Ukraine, the senator said he saw how Zelensky’s team employs outside auditors to track both dollars-and-cents and everything else “down to the individual spare part.”
Republicans are more skeptical and already making good on House Speaker Kevin McCarthy’s warning before the midterms that the House wouldn’t be sending Ukraine “a blank check.” The Biden administration has already provided approximately $27.5 billion in military assistance as well as nearly $10 billion in humanitarian aid and more than $15 billion in financial support.
Rep. James Comer, the Kentucky Republican now chairing the House Oversight Committee, will soon comb through those numbers to identify “waste or misuse.”
“With any massive government spending comes the opportunity for waste, fraud, abuse, and mismanagement. Ukraine aid is no different,” Comer told RCP before adding that Congress owes it “to the taxpayer” to “conduct oversight over the tens of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars sent overseas.”
Taxpayer support for Ukraine remains bipartisan – for now. The last aid package passed the Senate 88-11 and the House 368-57 in May, but deep skepticism remains on the right. Comparisons of Zelensky to Winston Churchill and Ukraine to Great Britain during the Second World War grate on fiscal conservatives like Ted Galen Carpenter of the CATO institute.
“The notion that Ukraine was such an appealing democratic model in Eastern Europe that the country’s mere existence terrified Putin may be a comforting myth to U.S. politicians and pundits, but it is a myth. Ukraine is far from being a democraticÃ¢?Âcapitalist model and an irresistible magnet for Russia’s groaning masses,” Carpenter wrote in the American Conservative, before noting how the former Eastern Bloc country regularly ranks toward the bottom of international corruption indexes.
Systemic corruption was an animating principle of Zelensky’s political career long before the Russian invasion when he rose from comedian to president. Mykhailo Podolyak, a close advisor to the Ukrainian leader, wrote on Twitter after the recent firings that the moves “testify to the key priorities of the state” and how “everyone should understand their responsibility.” The Biden administration echoed that message on Capitol Hill during testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Thursday.
Victoria Nuland, undersecretary of state for political affairs, told lawmakers that if anything the staffing change in Kyiv “sends a very strong signal to others who would try to rip off this war effort, and is important for the future of Ukraine.”
The White House is preparing for more of that kind of oversight from Congress in the weeks and months ahead, and while the administration reports that Ukraine earns high marks in rooting out corruption, Kirby noted that corruption remains an ever-present danger in all conflicts.
“You can’t forget that,” he said. “I mean, it’s war.” To guard against misuse, he added, the administration has redoubled its efforts via officials at the U.S. embassy there “to work with the Ukrainians on accountability.”
Ukraine’s first priority is expelling the Russians. They have already managed to blunt the advance, and the Zelensky administration welcomed news that Biden was readying to ship 31 Abrams Battle Tanks to the country, armor that’s expected to help turn the tide come spring.
King told RCP that the new hardware “will make a real difference for the Ukrainians” and said that the shipment was both “necessary” and “consistent” with previous aid packages. The United States first rushed Javelin and Stinger missile systems to the country during the early days of conflict. “The priority at the time was to stop the Russian incursion toward Kyiv,” he explained before noting how the battle has devolved into a kind of trench warfare. “Now we are in a different kind of war.”