Funding for Ukraine is far from unchecked charity
The Hill
Maseh Zarif
Tuesday, March 14, 2023

That a large sum of U.S. funding supports Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression is well understood. What few people know is that the Pentagon, State Department, and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) have teamed up to create a comprehensive monitoring process to ensure that funding is used effectively and transparently. The process appears to be working. 

On March 1, House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Michael McCaul (R-Texas) summed up what he saw on an official oversight trip that took him to Poland and Ukraine: “To date, no significant acts of fraud or misuse involving U.S. assistance have occurred.” Rep. Lisa McClain (R-Mich.) of the House Armed Services Committee reached a similar conclusion after her own visit to the front. She said, “[When you] actually see the inventory of weapons that we are sending and just how they are getting from Point A to Point B and how we’re tracking them … that, I can assure you, raised my level of confidence. There is a saying, ‘One look is worth 1,000 reports.’”   

While the Ukraine mission commands significant bipartisan support, lawmakers want to be confident, ahead of additional funding votes, that the executive branch is being a good steward of taxpayer dollars. At an open House Armed Services Committee hearing on Feb. 28, lawmakers heard from military and civilian officials, including Pentagon Inspector General Robert Storch, about how the department accounts for weapons and related support.  

Storch described several elements of the oversight mission that ensure due diligence: approximately 20 ongoing and planned audits; a criminal investigative service unit detecting and preventing fraud; forward deployment of personnel into the region to oversee assistance before weapons cross into Ukraine; and identification of potential oversight obstacles.  

Storch and his colleagues regularly report back to lawmakers and executive branch leaders. Armed Services Committee Chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) explained that lawmakers receive monthly classified briefings from the department, in addition to congressionally mandated written reports.  

The risk of arms being diverted by Ukrainians was raised by members. Storch explained that based on a combination of inventory reviews, access to tracking data, and in-person site visits by personnel from the Office of Defense Cooperation at the embassy in Kyiv, U.S. officials have seen “no signs of diversion or that the Ukrainians are not following procedures.” The only contentious exchange on the issue occurred when a reported claim of weapons diversion raised by a member during questioning turned out to be sourced to an uncorroborated article published by Global Times, a Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece known for peddling disinformation.  

Storch also noted at the hearing the importance of working across federal departments given that assistance for Ukraine includes non-defense spending. To that end, the inspectors general from the Defense Department, State Department and USAID formed an interagency working group that, as of January, was running 64 ongoing and planned oversight projects and had completed 14 others. These projects cover a range of activities, including end-use monitoring of weapons, audits of contracts, and safeguards for direct funding assistance for the Ukrainian government.  

Even with these measures in place, key congressional leaders are not complacent. McCaul and his upper chamber counterpart, Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member Sen. Jim Risch (R-Idaho), have pressed the case on oversight of funding that is delivered through non-U.S. government actors such as aid organizations and international financial institutions. A December 2022 letter to the Government Accountability Office from the two lead Republicans overseeing the State Department and USAID outlined requests for information and sharp questions meant to generate greater transparency.  

Republican leaders also have helped to correct the record on funding details. Some Republican members opposed to supporting Ukraine have emphasized the statement that the U.S. has “sent over $113 billion in foreign aid to Ukraine.” That claim conjures up an image of unlimited sums being shipped into Kyiv, but it is missing critical context for how assistance for Ukraine works in practice. 

The lead Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), has written that “40 percent of U.S. aid for Ukraine, or about $44 billion, is being spent here at home on our defense industrial base and readiness.” Far from being foreign aid handouts, this funding is a critical investment in an overlooked aspect of U.S. national defense and the workers and innovation that support it. And the broader package is far from charity: It is helping a partner to defend its sovereign territory and cripple a key American adversary’s military without putting Americans in combat. 

None of this is to say the administration has been immune from critique for its Ukraine policy. 

Indeed, both Republicans and Democrats in Congress have pushed the administration to enhance its support for Ukraine. Wicker aptly calls this position “more, better and faster,” referring to the quantity, quality and delivery speed of weapons for Ukraine’s defense. 

The oversight process itself also has room to grow. The inspectors general for Defense, State and USAID are making the case for having a greater, regular presence inside Ukraine for auditing purposes given the difficulties of evaluating programs remotely. Reps. Jason Crown (D-Colo.) and Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), both stalwart defenders of support for Ukraine, recently encouraged the administration to enable just that. 

Sooner or later, Congress will have its say. On Feb. 28, Assistant Secretary of Defense Celeste Wallander told House appropriators that the administration could not rule out asking Congress for supplemental Ukraine funding in the coming months before the end of the fiscal year. That is, existing funds meant to last through September 2023 may be spent more quickly than anticipated. Congress then would need to act to sustain key Ukraine-related assistance programs. 

Ongoing oversight of assistance will not satisfy members of Congress advocating to end all U.S. support for Ukraine. But lawmakers who want to hold Moscow accountable while using taxpayer dollars wisely demonstrate that support for Ukraine and robust oversight can be complementary — and in the United States’ national interest.