Top US military leaders face Congress over support for Ukraine and Israel

9 April 2024, 21:04

Germany Russia Ukraine War Military Aid
Germany Russia Ukraine War Military Aid. Picture: PA

It follows continued pleas by Ukraine’s president that if the US does not help soon, Kyiv will lose the war to Russia.

US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin and Joint Chiefs Chairman General CQ Brown Jr testified on Capitol Hill on Tuesday about the Pentagon’s 850 billion-dollar (£670 billion) budget for 2025 as questions remained as to whether politicians will support current spending needs for Ukraine or Israel.

The Senate hearing was the first time members on both sides were able to question the Pentagon’s top civilian and military leadership on the administration’s Israel strategy following Tel Aviv’s deadly strike on World Central Kitchen humanitarian aid workers in Gaza.

It also follows continued desperate pleas by Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky that if the US does not help soon, Kyiv will lose the war to Russia.

In their opening statements, both Mr Austin and Mr Brown emphasised that their 2025 budget is still shaped with the military’s long-term strategic goal in mind — to ready forces and weapons for a potential future conflict with China.

About 100 billion dollars (£78.7 billion) of this year’s request is set aside for new space, nuclear weapons and cyber warfare systems the military says it must invest in now before Beijing’s capabilities surpass it.

But the conflicts in Ukraine and Israel are challenging a deeply divided Congress and have resulted in months of delays in getting last year’s defence budget through, which was passed only a few weeks ago.

Mr Austin’s opening remarks were temporarily interrupted by protesters lifting a Palestinian flag and shouting at him to stop sending weapons to Israel. “Stop the genocide,” they said, as they lifted their hands, stained in red, in the air.

The Pentagon scraped together about 300 million dollars (£236 million) in ammunition to send to Kyiv in March but cannot send more without Congress’s support, and a separate 60 billion-dollar (£47 billion) supplemental bill that would fund those efforts has been stalled for months.

“The price of US leadership is real. But it is far lower than the price of US abdication,” Mr Austin told the senators.

If Kyiv falls, it could imperil Ukraine’s Baltic Nato member neighbours and potentially drag US troops into a prolonged European war.

If thousands die in Gaza because of starvation, it could enrage Israel’s Arab neighbours and lead to a much wider, deadlier Middle East conflict.

Mr Austin said he spoke to his Israeli counterpart, defence minister Yoav Gallant, on Monday and that he repeated US insistence that Israel must move civilians out of the battlespace in Gaza and properly care for them.

The Pentagon has urged Congress to support new assistance for Ukraine for months, to no avail, and has tried to walk a line between defending its ally Israel and maintaining ties with key regional Arab partners.

Congress Ukraine
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Air Force Gen CQ Brown (Cliff Owen/AP)

Israel’s actions in Gaza have been used as a rallying cry by factions of Iranian-backed militant groups, including the Houthis in Yemen and Islamic Resistance groups across Iraq and Syria, to strike at US interests.

Six US military ships with personnel and components to build a humanitarian aid pier are also still en route to Gaza but questions remain as to how food that arrives at the pier will be safely distributed inside the devastated territory.

Politicians are also seeing demands at home. For months, a handful of its far-right members have kept Congress from approving additional money or weapons for Ukraine until domestic needs such as curbing the crush of migrants at the southern US border are addressed.

Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson is already facing a call to oust him as speaker by Georgia Republican Rep Marjorie Taylor Greene because Mr Johnson is trying to work out a compromise that would move the Ukraine aid forward.

On Israel, the World Central Kitchen strike led to a shift in tone from US President Joe Biden on how Israel must protect civilian life in Gaza and drove dozens of House Democrats, including former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to call on Mr Biden to halt weapons transfers to Israel.

By Press Association

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