A Plan B for Ukraine?

Column: Seized Russian assets may provide relief for the beleaguered democracy

President Biden Hosts News Conference With President Volodymyr Zelensky Of Ukraine At The White House
Volodymyr Zelensky (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
January 25, 2024

These are bleak days for Americans who support Ukraine's resistance to Russian aggression. Last year's Ukrainian counteroffensive did not achieve its aims. While Ukraine has decimated the Russian Black Sea fleet and shown that Russian territory is not immune to attack, the nearly two-year-old conflict has turned into a long, hard slog—a static war of position rather than a sweeping war of maneuver. Every day, it seems, Russian missiles pound Ukrainian apartment buildings, schools, and hospitals. And military aid to Ukraine (and to Israel) languishes in the U.S. Congress, entangled in the web of immigration politics.

President Biden has asked Congress for an additional $61 billion in assistance. The money will replenish munitions, equip Ukrainian soldiers, and purchase new weapons systems. Congress won't authorize the aid unless it is tied to reforms that will reduce migration on the southern border. A bipartisan team of senators is working on a potential compromise to break the deadlock. Its chances in the House, where the GOP holds a one-seat majority, are slim. At best. This is an election year, after all. Republicans will spend the next nine months saying Biden opened the border and unleashed disaster. And Biden will say that a minority of Republicans betrayed Ukraine. And they both will be right.

Yet the situation is not hopeless. Another bipartisan coalition has emerged in Congress: Republicans and Democrats in the House Foreign Affairs Committee and Senate Foreign Relations Committee support a different mechanism to aid Ukraine. Not with weapons—those still depend on overcoming the immigration stonewall. Rep. Michael McCaul (R., Texas), the House committee's chairman, and Sen. Jim Risch (R., Idaho), the Senate committee's ranking member, are behind the Rebuilding Economic Prosperity and Opportunity (REPO) for Ukrainians Act. It will permit the State Department to seize Russian state assets in U.S. financial institutions and transfer the funds to economic relief and reconstruction projects in Ukraine.

Unlike Biden's $61 billion proposal, REPO for Ukrainians has not polarized Congress. Only one senator on Risch's committee voted against it—Rand Paul, of course. The legislation is significant. It deserves to be debated. If enacted, it would be the first time the United States has seized and repurposed frozen assets from a nation we are not fighting directly. "This is intended to be a big hammer," Risch said on Wednesday. A big hammer is what you need when Russia launches the largest ground war in Europe since 1945, when the world is on fire and American global leadership is singed, and when a few GOP congressmen won't let you near the rest of the toolbox.

There isn't much Russian state money in American hands. If REPO for Ukrainians becomes law, the United States will be able to send Ukraine a few billion dollars' worth of aid. But money is fungible. Every dollar America provides is one less dollar Ukraine must spend on reconstruction—and one more dollar it can put to fighting Russia. REPO for Ukrainians will also signal Europe that America hasn't abandoned the field. And European banks have much more Russian money parked in their vaults. Money that can be sent to Ukraine.

Would Russia retaliate by seizing U.S.-related assets? It's a possibility. Still, the Russian economy is close to autarkic. And the West has frozen Russia's accounts since the war began. The reprisals have been negligible. Besides, one reason the war continues to rage is that Biden allowed the fear of escalation to constrain his actions. Biden's dithering and delay, his reluctance to send Ukraine game-changing long-range munitions, have prevented Ukraine from losing, but also denied Ukraine the means to win. REPO for Ukrainians is the sort of decisive move that will demonstrate Western resolution in the face of the aggressor.

Failure to resupply Ukraine won't lead to a swift and total Russian victory in 2024. If America takes a year off from sending weapons—which it most certainly should not do—Europe and the United Kingdom, and others, will remain in Ukraine's corner. And Ukraine won't be helpless. The new era of warfare privileges defense over offense. Ballistic missiles and low-cost, highly disruptive drone technology help neutralize Russian advantages in manpower and close-air support. Most important, the courage and will of the Ukrainian people haven't been broken. Far from it.

The cost in lives will be high. But Ukrainians will continue to fight, with or without the United States. And with the tacit understanding that while 2024 may not be decisive, 2025 will provide certainty, one way or another. Either a reelected Democratic administration and a new Democratic House majority will work with a Republican Senate to resume funding, or Donald Trump will "end the war in a day" by attempting to impose a ceasefire that, if it reflects the current lines of control, will favor Russia.

REPO for Ukrainians offers a way out of the bind. A way to support our ally amid congressional inaction. A way to give Ukraine the space to fight while we Americans come to our senses. A Russian victory would be terrible not only for Ukraine, Europe, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, and Israel. It would be terrible for our safety. Our prosperity. Our freedom.