The Pentagon’s several billion-dollar accounting error in previously approved aid packages to Ukraine is fodder for a growing group of Republicans seeking to derail President Biden’s request for an additional $24 billion for Kyiv.
As lawmakers return to the Capitol this week, a fight is expected over the Biden administration’s request for more dollars for the embattled country. The ask comes after a significant Defense Department accounting error made unclear exactly how much money has been spent toward weapons to Ukraine.
The Pentagon said it overestimated the value of the weapons given to Ukraine over the past two years by $6.2 billion, a miscalculation that has been seized on by GOP skeptics who claim the administration has no clear concept of how long America’s commitment to the conflict will continue and a reason to reject his funding request.
That was on display in a letter drafted by Sen. JD Vance (R-Ohio) and Rep. Chip Roy (R-Texas), who said it would be “absurd” for Congress to approve additional dollars with the administration’s “lack of clarity” on how much it’s funneled to Ukraine.
The letter, addressed to Office of Management and Budget (OMB) Director Shalanda Young and dated Sept. 5, claims there have been significant Pentagon accounting errors and “an open-ended commitment to supporting the war in Ukraine of an indeterminate nature, based on a strategy that is unclear.”
“The American people deserve to know what their money has gone to. How is the counteroffensive going? Are the Ukrainians any closer to victory than they were 6 months ago? What is our strategy, and what is the president’s exit plan? the lawmakers wrote. “It would be an absurd abdication of congressional responsibility to grant this request without knowing the answers to these questions.”
The Pentagon, meanwhile, has said the overestimation resulted in a surplus that will be used for future security packages.
“It’s just going to go back into the pot of money that we have allocated” for the future Pentagon stock drawdowns,” Pentagon deputy press secretary Sabrina Singh told reporters in June.
While the accounting errors are sure to be a talking point for GOP detractors of Biden’s spending request, it’s not likely to change minds, experts say.
“The whole issue about the discovery of the underspend at DOD will be one of the talking points for the anti-Ukraine crowd,” Luke Coffey, a senior fellow at Hudson Institute, told The Hill. “I don’t think it’d be a very effective one.”
“The irony is that they’re the ones calling for more accountability and transparency. And when the DOD crunches the numbers and is very transparent about having full accountability of what has and hasn’t been spent, and they discover that they actually have extra money, then they’re criticized for that,” he added. “You can’t really have it both ways.”
Michael O’Hanlon, the director of research in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution said the spending miscalculation “will be mentioned a moderate amount,” but “won’t really be what changes anyone’s mind or drives the debate.”
“The fact that the Ukrainians are using our weapons well is plain for all to see,” O’Hanlon said, adding that the bigger issue will be “how long do we keep providing multiple tens of billions of dollars a year for a faraway war of uncertain prospects?”
Biden in August requested $24.1 billion for Ukraine aid as part of $40.1 billion in emergency spending, a supplemental package that would also go toward countering China, aiding Taiwan, disaster relief and border security.
The tranche would include some $13.1 billion for the Pentagon to send Ukraine lethal aid and replenish its own weapons stocks and another $8.5 billion for economic and humanitarian assistance.
In addition, $200 million would help “counter the destabilizing activities” of the private Russian military company Wagner Group and other “Russian Malign Actors” in Africa, according to the OMB.
The request, which would evade budget caps under a debt limit suspension bill passed in June, could pass the Senate but would face strong pushback in the House due to a group of Republicans who argue the money would be better used on pressing domestic issues.
That argument came up in July as the House moved to pass its version of the fiscal 2024 National Defense Authorization Act. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) introduced an amendment to the bill to halt any additional U.S. aid to Ukraine, and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) put forth an amendment to strip $300 million from Kyiv’s assistance.
Seventy GOP lawmakers voted for Gaetz’s defeated amendment, while 89 voted for Greene’s failed add.
Biden and his senior national security leaders, meanwhile, have repeatedly stated the United States will aid Ukraine “for as long as it takes” to push Russian troops from the country’s territory.
So far, Washington has approved four rounds of assistance worth $113 billion combined for Kyiv since Russia invaded in February 2022, with the latest round approved by Congress in December for about $45 billion. That package was meant to last through the end of fiscal 2023, which ends in September.
Additional money is seen as crucial as Ukraine slogs through a counteroffensive that began earlier this summer.
Since the war began, the Pentagon has repeatedly used presidential drawdown authority to pull weapons and equipment from its stockpiles to more quickly move aid to Ukraine — a much faster method than buying directly from defense companies and waiting for items to be built.
But Singh last month told reporters the U.S. government has reached the end of the rope for those drawdown dollars, except for the $6.2 billion found after the accounting miscalculation.
Coffey said he doesn’t believe a vote on the extra aid will fall along party lines as “there’s still enough bipartisan support to get a package through.”
“There are enough members of Congress in both parties to understand the importance of supporting Ukraine, especially at this crucial time,” Coffey noted.
“Ukraine is right in the middle of its counteroffensive. The last thing that the U.S. needs to do now is cut off support at this moment,” he continued. “The Matt Gaetzes and the Marjorie Taylor Greenes, they’re very vocal, but I’m still certain that they hold a minority opinion.”
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