Congress To Consider Ukraine Loan That Critics Say Is a ‘Trick’ To Entrench America in an Unwinnable War

Speaker Johnson says he will introduce legislation when the House returns next week.

AP/J. Scott Applewhite, file
Speaker Johnson, at the Capitol, March 20, 2024. AP/J. Scott Applewhite, file

Would the loan for Ukraine that is working its way through Congress ever be repaid? That will be the question as the next chapter in the debate between the foreign policy “realists” and “idealists” ripples through Washington. 

Speaker Johnson told Fox News Sunday that he plans, when House members return to Washington next week, to introduce legislation that would turn additional Ukraine assistance into a loan. The Senate approved in February $60 billion for Ukraine’s war effort against Russia as part of a $95.3 billion foreign aid bill. Mr. Johnson declined to put it up for a vote in the House amid strong Republican opposition.

The repackaging of Ukraine aid appears to be an effort to placate that opposition. The idea was suggested by President Trump in February and subsequently championed by his congressional allies. Senator Graham in a recent statement called it “a winning combination for America.” Yet some “America First” foreign policy thinkers say a loan is a “trick” to further entrench America in an unwinnable war and likely would never be repaid. 

“A Hail Mary pass, a sign of desperation”: That is how a professor of international relations at Notre Dame, Michael Desch, describes the loan initiative to the Sun. He calls himself as a “card-carrying realist,” a school of thought espoused by, among others, many conservatives who are skeptical of Ukraine’s war effort. 

Mr. Desch ventures that the loan proposal is more likely to pass Congress than outright aid, though it will be difficult for Mr. Johnson to rally support for this compromise given his slim majority in the House. “It’s like a trick,” a senior research associate at Harvard’s center for international affairs, Evan Sankey, tells the Sun. “The question is, are you able to trick enough people to get this through?” 

It’s unclear at this point what form the loan would take and when, if ever, repayment would be expected of the Ukrainians. In light of America’s soaring national debt and the crisis at the southern border, Mr. Graham recommends “a no-interest, waivable loan.” Mr. Johnson told Fox News that under the loan program, America is “not just giving foreign aid, we’re setting up in a relationship where they can provide it back to us when the time is right.” 

Congress, though, can forgive the loan down the road when it’s more politically palatable. America has been open to loan forgiveness since the end of the Cold War, and in recent decades has forgiven a host of loans to Mexico and African countries. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund have programs in place to forgive debts owed by war-torn countries. 

It’s easy to imagine America doing the same for Ukraine to reduce its fiscal burdens years down the road when it’s reconstructing following the war. This would set Kyiv on a path to prosperity, Mr. Sankey, who espouses the realist, or restraint, mentality, says. “The U.S. needs this war to end and not restart.” 

Borrowers of American funding historically take a while to repay their debts — if they ever do. During World War I, America sent about $6 billion worth of food and other supplies to Europe. Many of the nearly bankrupt recipient nations defaulted on those debts, prompting Congress to pass the Johnson Act of 1934, which prohibited the extension of credit to countries that had not repaid loans made to them during World War I.

During World War II, America dispensed more than $50 billion in assistance through Lend-Lease agreements with more than 30 countries. It took until 2006 for Britain to make its final repayment in the form of 43 million euros to the American Treasury. Russia repaid in 1972 only a fraction — $722 million — of the $11.3 billion worth of goods and equipment it received from America upon the plea of the Soviet party boss, Joseph Stalin. 

Mr. Johnson also mentioned seizing frozen Russian assets and handing them to Ukraine as part of the bipartisan bill called the Rebuilding Economic Prosperity and Opportunity Act, passed by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in January as efforts for further Ukraine aid stalled in the House. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, about $300 billion has been frozen in Western banks. America holds an estimated $40 billion to $60 billion of those assets. 

The legislation would mark the first time America has seized foreign assets of a country it is not at war with. Mr. Johnson called it “pure poetry.” Many congressional Republicans, though, have raised concerns over a lack of accountability to Ukraine aid in light of well-documented corruption in the country. President Zelensky fired his regional military recruitment chiefs amid a bribery scandal last August. 

“Even if we could put a crowbar in somebody’s wallet and get all $300 billion liquid, how much would actually reach the Ukrainian military on the line of contact?” Mr. Desch asks. “It could just be a direct transfer from Russian oligarch to Ukrainian oligarch.”

Even if the plan works, it could undermine the role of the dollar as a reserve currency. Seizing Russian money might discourage other nations from retaining large reserves of American dollars, Mr. Desch warns, bringing about “the death-knell of the dollar as the global currency.”

These initiatives address short-term, surface-level problems, Mr. Sankey argues. A deeper question, voiced by the likes of Senator Vance and other critics of the “idealist” school, goes unresolved: What are America’s interests in the Ukraine war?

Proponents of further aid to Ukraine fear that the limited Russian success to date will snowball as the Ukrainian military incurs significant losses. They warn that failure to send more arms to Ukraine will bring about the end of the post-World War II rules-based international order, erode American credibility, and inspire Russia to invade Poland and the Baltics, and Communist China to invade Taiwan. 

A leading advocate of liberal interventionism, the Washington Post’s Robert Kagan, warns in an opinion piece published last week that if America were to fail to act, it would repeat the errors of 1930s-style appeasement and Republican anti-interventionism that critics call “isolationism.”

The benefits of American engagement are almost “too good to be true,” the founding dean of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Graham Allison, told the Sun. Partners in the North Atlantic Treaty have grown stronger and more unified, while Russia has grown economically and militarily weaker: “No dollar in the defense budget has a higher return on investment than the dollars going to provide ammunition and arms to Ukraine.”

Some realists are assigning responsibility toward Ukraine itself. Mr. Zelensky wants to blame Ukraine’s military predicament on an insufficient supply of weapons from America, a professor of intelligence and national security at Texas A&M’s school of government, Christopher Layne, tells the Sun. Yet Ukraine is short of troops, though it has been scrambling to pass legislation to lower the age of conscription to 25. 

“Until Kyiv demonstrates its own resolve to continue the war by doing so,” Mr. Layne says, “the U.S. should not even consider sending additional weapons to Ukraine.”

America is known for helping defend other nations from totalitarianism as it did during World War II. Yet Mr. Desch says that sending more funding to Mr. Zelensky would change little on the lines of contact while the death toll mounts on both sides. “We’re to the point in Ukraine where continuing to prop up a war effort that at best will perpetuate a stalemate is not only strategically, but morally, unconscionable,” he says.


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